A woman's place in the new Egypt

By Leana Hosea
BBC News, Cairo

image captionWhat now for Cairo's female revolutionaries?

Women were out in force during the popular uprisings that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but their future in post-revolutionary Egypt is not so certain.

The role of women in the Egyptian revolution was vital to its success - from smuggling food and medical supplies into the square under their clothing, to ripping up the pavement for rocks and facing a barrage of Molotov cocktails.

Egyptian women proved to the world that they were not voiceless and oppressed.

Many Egyptians saw Tahrir Square, the focus of the revolution, as a microcosm of the perfect Egyptian society.

Strict Muslim Salafis shared stories and food with girls wearing tight jeans and smoking cigarettes.

Up until the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down, there were no reported cases of sexual harassment - a big problem in Egypt - and women slept safely next to men in makeshift tents.

Fresh violence

But the shine was tarnished with the shocking sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan during the celebrations in Tahrir Square.

Any hopes there may have been that this was an anomaly were dashed when a protest by hundreds of women demanding equal rights and an end to sexual harassment turned violent last week.

A group of men attacked the demonstrators, telling them to go home where they belong.

So how much have things changed for women and what are their demands in the new Egypt?

Women's rights activist Engy Ghozlan says that what happened on International Women's Day shows that the revolution has not changed any of Egypt's social problems.

"We were faced by abusive men making fun of our demands, saying that a woman should never run for president," she said.

With no police present and the army initially keeping their distance, the women were sexually harassed, beaten and even threatened with knives.

"Around 100 religious extremists were screaming at us to get out of Tahrir and started to chase us out. It was really chaotic," says Ms Ghozlan.

"In the revolution we were all united and we all wanted the system to go, but our social behaviour hasn't changed."

But Fatma Adel, a 22-year-old singer and Tahrir revolutionary, says she does see some changes in social attitudes.

In a recent incident, a group of men intervened to protect her from being harassed.

image captionWomen celebrate the ousting of President Mubarak in Cairo's Tahrir Square

"This would never happen before, but now people have lost their fear and regained their dignity. Before the revolution, men didn't have their rights and would take out the injustice they felt on women. If all Egyptians have their human rights, women's rights will be achieved."

New confidence

Even if many men haven't yet changed their attitude towards women since the revolution, journalist Shaimaa Abul Kheir believes women's self worth has increased.

"As a result of taking part in the revolution, Egyptian women now see themselves as equal to men and have the confidence to demand their rights. We've proved that we can organise and effect change and the challenge for us and all Egyptians is to make sure extremists don't take control."

This is a challenge Engy Ghozlan believes will be difficult unless there is more female inclusion in the political process.

"There are no women in the transition government and not many are represented in the opposition parties, so I don't see how we can move towards a real democracy."

Last year, parliament passed a law mandating the creation of 64 new seats in the house that must go to women.

But journalist Shaimaa Abul Kheir wants this quota to be cancelled.

"This takes away our dignity. We don't need to be forced anywhere, we can make it on our own merit."

But singer Fatma is more hopeful.

"Women will play a bigger role in parliament and the cabinet now. Perhaps we can't have a female president yet, but as our education and awareness improves, so do the chances."

All this means nothing, however, to 25-year-old Hemmat Ahmed, who sells vegetables on a wooden cart at the side of a busy Cairo road.

"I stand here from 0600 every day to feed my children and I earn more money than my husband, who doesn't have a regular job. I left school and went to work when I was eight years old, but I'll make sure my children get an education, even if I have to beg for it."

She has no faith in the political system and thinks that the new president, whoever it may be, will continue to steal the country's riches.

"At least Hosni Mubarak was full from 30 years of robbery.

"People will soon be back in Tahrir because nothing will change. There are no jobs, no good salaries, I can't even afford oil and sugar anymore.

"All I dream of is to have a home and some new clothes for my children."