After The Revolution, Egypt’s Women See Legal Gains Slip Away

A debate over child custody laws is one example that things could be changing for Egyptian women following the country’s April revolution. Women are also being kept out of the new government, where Islamist parties now have far more influence than in the

Salafis in Tahrir square on July 29 rally for the application of the Sharia (Jonathan Rashad)
Salafis in Tahrir square on July 29 rally for the application of the Sharia (Jonathan Rashad)
Ahmed Zaki Osman

CAIRO -- Ahmed Abubaker, a 35-year-old teacher, has little interest in politics, and barely followed the Egyptian pro-democracy revolution. But this recent divorcee has now taken up protesting for another cause.

Al-Masry Al-Youm found him recently at a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Justice. Abubaker is joining like-minded divorced fathers who are calling for a change to laws regulating custody over their children. They believe that the current custody system, along with other provisions in the personal status law, is against Islamic Sharia law.

"Two months ago I couldn't see Maram for a whole month," Abubaker said of his six-year-old daughter. "My ex-wife's father told me that the security situation was deteriorating and couldn't risk letting the girl go far from home."

The debate over custody laws often centers around arguments over whether Sharia supports the claims of divorced fathers. And now, it comes within a context in which some Islamist groups want to use their newfound political freedom to curtail women's rights.

Islamists argue that women's legal gains in recent years are a product of Hosni Mubarak's pro-Western regime. Women's rights advocates counter that the improved status of women is an outcome of social activism, which managed to push women's issues to the fore.

Women's gains under threat

In 2005, Egypt's parliament, then dominated by the former ruling National Democratic Party, passed legal amendments by which children should remain in their mother's custody until age 15, up from 10 for boys and 12 for girls.

The law states that fathers have the right to see their children only three hours a week. Fathers also lack the right to house their children without the mother's consent.

Abubaker joined a Facebook page calling for changes to the custody laws. Other fathers who stage regular protests in front of the Ministry of Justice have joined newly established groups, such as the "The Front for Saving the Family" and "The Coalition for Saving the Egyptian Family".

Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated websites have also been very active in covering these developments, which they describe as being "calls for the application of Sharia."

In the last decade, Egyptian women managed to erase some of the egregious gender inequities enshrined in the laws regulating personal status issues, such as reforming child custody laws, ensuring that women have the right to add conditions to marriage contracts, and providing women with the right to get a divorce through courts, known as khola, which are based on Islamic law.

For feminists and secular political activists, these movements are dangerous, since they're based on specific and rigid interpretations of Sharia.

"There has been a major setback in the position of women since the revolution," says Karima Kemal, a journalist and commentator. "Conservative thinking is on the rise along with the rise of the Islamic groups. They see all the developments that took place concerning the status of women as Western, and aimed at destroying the family."

A Western import?

Perhaps the biggest impediment to improving the legal status of women is the argument that such changes are being forced on Egypt by the West and were pushed by former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, who is widely hated.

Elham Eidarous, a political activist, says this argument is used "to distract people from seeing the efforts exerted by women's NGOs in order to push for the changes. Suzanne Mubarak wasn't a feminist actually."

Women's rights advocates may face crucial challenges with the election of the next parliament, which many expect will be dominated by Islamists. Some women's activists fear that an Islamist-dominated parliament would strip women of the rights they have gained.

"Women's activists should build strategic relationships with civil political parties that support women's rights, " said Eidarous. "Women's NGOs shouldn't be the only force defending women's rights."

Women's rights advocates say that regression on personal status issues is part of a larger problem of marginalizing women. After an unprecedented showing during protests over the last six months, Egypt women are now being told that they cannot take high political and executive posts.

The committee that drafted the constitutional amendments in March didn't include any women, and Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet has only one female minister. During the last governors reshuffle, no female governors were appointed.

Last week, a coalition of feminist organizations sent a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy calling on the government to ensure that women will be represented in the committee that drafts the new constitution. The letter indicates that any future constitution must have anti-discrimination provisions.

However, Lotfy argues that at this very moment, Egyptians must not evaluate the situation of women in isolation "Women aren't represented in a fair way in the political scene. That's true, but who from the marginalized people is Egypt are being fairly represented?" he says. "The old way of thinking still dominates."

Read the full version of the story in Al Masry Al Youm

Photo- Jonathan Rashad

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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