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August 23, 2011

Outrage over Women's Rights in Egypt

Female revolutionaries are pushed aside — and forced to undergo "virginity tests."

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In the epic 18 Days that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, women led the charge in turbulent uprisings across the country. Now, however, those same women say they're being sidelined in the formation of a new Egypt.

Many women argue that the Egyptian military, the country's de facto leader, has ignored them while laying the groundwork for a new government. First, the military established an all-male committee to amend the constitution to enable the country to hold elections this fall. (The elections are currently slated for September, although the date is subject to change.) In addition, the appointed transitional government has only one female minister, out of 27. And it looks unlikely that there will be a quota for women in the new parliament, as there was in the old, when about 12 percent of ministers were women.

"People say now is not the right time to fight for women's rights," says Suzi Balaban, a member of a grassroots women's group called Sawa ("together" in Arabic). "They say, 'Let's get democracy going now and talk about women later.' If not now, when?"

An example of the uphill battle for women: Amnesty International recently reported that on March 9, when the military evacuated Tahrir Square, 18 female activists were arrested, 17 of whom say they were forced to undergo "virginity tests," meaning soldiers physically probed them in a bogus test to determine if they were virgins. The military claimed the tests were done to protect the army from possible allegations of rape.

Nehad Abu El Komsan, chairwoman of the nonprofit Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, says the concept of gender equality is difficult to foster in Egypt, as many women view it as a Western import. "Women here must feel that they can be leaders," she says.

To that end, one woman, TV anchor Bothaina Kamel, announced her candidacy for president. Her chances are slim, experts say, but it's a symbolic step.

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