Nahlah Ayed: The renewed fight for women's rights in Egypt

Egypt's long history is full of strong, barrier-breaking women, including one of the world's first licensed pilots. But today's Islamist government is creating new challenges and the fight for women's rights is moving to new fronts, including the streets, Nahlah Ayed reports.

Taking lessons from Egypt's 'Mother of Flight' 80 years earlier

Egyptian women shout slogans against President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood during a march protesting against sexual harassment and violence against women in Cairo in February 2013. (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

For many years, a young ambitious Marwa Esameldin wanted nothing more than to become an airplane pilot.

Her second choice was journalism, and it was ultimately as a writer that she found herself standing in Tahrir Square during Egypt's 2011 revolution.

As she describes those explosive days it is clear they were transformative. Yet one of her most memorable assignments remains a story she once wrote about a personal hero, Lotfia El Nadi, who had attained Esameldin's unrealized dream. 

El Nadi was the first Egyptian woman — and at 26 the youngest in the world at the time — to become a licensed pilot, exactly 80 years ago.

"She was ahead of her time," Esameldin says. "She had the courage and the enthusiasm to decide on an idea and execute it. I am impressed by characters that are able to leave their fingerprints on life's domains."

Egypt's history is replete with many examples of such characters: strong, defiant women who made names for themselves by advancing women's rights in a traditional society.

Many of them remain resilient role models, their names resurrected for inspiration today as Egyptian women are struggling to find their place under a conservative post-revolution regime. 

Among these role models, El Nadi stands out. Perhaps it is the romanticism often associated with the act of flying, especially in those pioneering years in the 1930s.

Maybe it's because of how she did it: According to friends and family, she quietly took flying lessons in an otherwise all-male class, while working as a switchboard operator at the airline to cover her fees.

Taking off

"Flying was always more representing freedom, so it wasn't just a career, it was more like a statement," says London-based Mo Elnadi (likely a distant relative, he says, despite the slight difference in name spelling), who meticulously researched her life.

Egypt's Lotfia El Nadi, one of the first female pilots in the world, and the youngest to be licensed in 1933. (Courtesy Egypt Air Force)

"Try to imagine how women lived in the '20s and '30s of the last century.… I know for a fact, for example, that her father was very strict."

Lotfia El Nadi's achievement ultimately made headlines in Egypt and beyond. She was said to be a friend Amelia Earhart, the famous U.S. flying pioneer, with whom she exchanged letters.

Early on, El Nadi would occasionally hide in a plane destined for a test flight and pop up mid-air to learn whatever she could for free.

"It was my revolt, I had to do it," she once said, many years later in a 1996 film made about her, called Take Off From the Sand.

Susan El Nadi, Lotfia's great niece, says that this kind of personal revolt helped give Egyptian women their voice.

"She was the start of modern women thinking," she said in an interview from Sydney, Australia. "She opened women's minds to say 'Hey, it's not a male-dominated world, we can do things too.'"

Gains eroded

Eighty years later, however, Egypt's women are at a crossroads.

They have made many strides over the years, especially given the societal constraints, and have entered just about every field, from medicine to the military.

They were also at the front lines of the recent revolution, which they felt would only further advance their cause.

The battle for equality here in Egypt was far from over when the revolution came. One measure: of the 1,500 pilots working for Egypt Air today only eight are women.

And there is a great fear now among many women that, with Islamists at the forefront of the post-revolution political realm, whatever gains Egyptian women have made in the past will be eroded.

One example here: A minimum quota for female representation in the new parliament was completely ignored in the first post-revolution election, notes the National Council for Women.

Worse, over many objections, Islamist President Mohammed Morsi forced a constitution through last year that barely mentions women.

Political Islam

"With the rise of the political Islam … we have seen a constant elimination of women from any political activities," Mervat el Tellawi, head of the NCW, said in an interview.

"They are vehemently after women. So this is my fear, that after the new parliament is elected, and with the constitution, they can change most of the social laws in the country: Marriage, divorce, child custody, [female] circumcision — all of what we have done through years can be [revoked.]"

Journalist Marwa Esameldin: so many strong women in Egypt's history. (Glen Kugelstadt / CBC)

For its part, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party say they are being unfairly judged in this regard — that detractors from the old regime are spreading falsehoods on the Brotherhood's views about women.

"It's a battle," says Dr. Omayma Kamel, a physician and one of the very few women serving in Egypt's upper house for the FJP. "A battle between the group that wants to make Egypt forward, and others which want to take Egypt backwards."

She was one of the few women involved in the drafting of the controversial constitution, and she argues that there is no need to mention women explicitly in the document.

"Women are 'citizens' and they have all the rights of citizens," she said in an interview. "We can understand or can realize that women's rights are totally protected like men."

Kamel points to a recent initiative, launched by Morsi, to look into women's issues as proof that it is a priority for the government.

But el Tellawi — who wasn't invited to the conference despite her position — says it's not enough.

"They are not feminist by nature, on the contrary they have men educated to be a bit anti-women," she says. "So how can they make an initiative without consulting with the experts?"

The subject of the hour

For many Egyptian women, establishing their rights under the new regime is the subject of the hour.

The thought that there might be some kind of regression has infuriated many Egyptians, especially as they look back at the women who paved the way for today's freedoms.

Susan El Nadi sees it every time she visits.

"To see how women now are treated compared to the freedom that [her aunt] had, even then, is amazing," she says. "I think Egypt has regressed if anything."

One of the flashpoints now is the talk of emboldened religious figures who are publicly demanding changes to the existing laws that impose a minimum age for marriage and prohibit female circumcision.

Many women — especially these past months — have chosen to express their dismay in the streets (despite the growing frequency of organized sexual assaults at protests, which activists say is aimed at silencing women).

Rufaida Yusri turned to activism after hearing about the 'virginity tests' security forces ordered for women who were protesting in Cairo's Tahrir Square. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

Nineteen-year-old Rufaida Yusri came of age watching the post-revolution violence, and decided to turn to activism after hearing about the virginity tests the military ordered for women who were protesting in Tahrir Square.

She now volunteers with a group called ACT, which helps protect women protesters in the streets, and monitors how media portrays women.

At times like these, she says, there are lessons to be drawn from the likes of el Nadi.

"She says to me like, 'Nobody is going to stand in your way. You make your own destiny,'" she says. "Nobody is going to stand in my way."

Esameldin, the journalist, agrees.

"The best lesson girls can take from Lotfia is that they have the determination to do what they want."

Indeed, many Egyptian women today say they, too, will rebel, as El Nadi did. If pushed to the limit, they insist, Egypt's next revolution will be led by them.