Chat with Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at CFR

Months ago I wrote about how Egyptian women were on the front lines of the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak (Women and the Revolution; What Happened in Tahrir Square). The Arab Spring has not expressly rallied around the advancement of women’s rights, though many have said the empowerment they felt during the demonstrations should be used to effect change for women themselves. Many friends back in the states consistently ask me, “What’s it like for women now in Egypt?” One of the more frequent questions: “Are less women wearing headscarves after the revolution?” Many of my female friends and contacts here say “women’s rights” is a non-issue, that in fact the consistent focus is “patronizing” and “typical of a West that fetishizes us.” Others say they have legitimate concerns over representation in the new government and rail against gendered cultural expectations (one of my friends, a 24-year-old journalist, jokes the real revolution will happen when her family stops pressuring her to get married). But those concerns, some say, make up the wallpaper in a house that still desperately needs to be built.

When I covered International Women’s Day back in March, the event–part celebration, part demonstration–in Tahrir Square soon turned violent when throngs of men arrived to harass women, saying they were contesting the secular-driven demands of the gathering. “They want to get rid of Islam,” one 26-year-old man shouted, while an older man tried to grab my video-camera, telling a group of men I was there to “spread lies and make Egyptian women look angry.” When I asked an Egyptian friend why she didn’t attend that day, she explained “Many of the women there are out of touch. They’re elite…they’ve lived abroad. Women are fine here. We don’t see any issues. Outsiders see issues.” In a similar vein, one Middle East analyst who tuned into the day’s events via frantic dispatches on Twitter, simply concluded: “Look, you can’t want it (“women’s rights”) more than they do.”

Still, others are worried they are being sidelined in the formation of a new Egypt as the country’s de facto ruling body, the military, charts a framework for transition. Firebrand octogenarian Dr. Nawal El Saadawi says she’s lost some of the excitement she had in the days following Mubarak’s ouster. “Things are moving slowly and we’ve got a long way to go.”

The other day I chatted with Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle Eastabout the days ahead for women in Egypt. And how mainly western-constructed notions of “gender equality” and “female empowerment” are problematic, and sometimes, irrelevant.

I’ll have more on this in the September issue of Marie Claire mag.

As Egypt works on building its house, how do you see the current situation for women?

I think the situation for women is a marker for the entire progressive agenda for Egypt. The revolution was very much orchestrated by young people. It was a secular revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood was late to the game. They signed on once it was in full swing, but they were not in the vanguard. This was a young secular revolution whose vision for Egypt would be amenable to women’s rights. Now where does it go?

The more secular progressive elements are quite marginal at the end of the day. And they are struggling to organize politically. There are a number of parties to come together. But they are little. They’re trying to unify under one umbrella but it has not happened. So they’re against the Muslim Brotherhood which is much better organized. And there are elements in the Brotherhood that are very conservative, very traditional that would want to be much more strict when it comes to rights for women.

But then there are younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood debating: what does the Muslim Brotherhood stand for? What does it mean for religious tolerance, guidance?

It’s a fluid situation that’s up for grabs.

Gender equality is a loaded question in the Middle East. The whole concept of gender equality in many people’s minds isn’t something aspired to – it’s culturally alien, sometimes translating as women trying to be men. It can be seen as a western import.

I don’t even like using the phrase. But what will occur in the coming years are pretty profound national conversations about what roles women should have in society. What should women do with their education? What say do they have in marriage, divorce and decision-making over children? All these things come wrapped up in a broader section of political and religious rights. Because after all, the most sensitive issue is family law which is very connected to Islamic law.

With so much on the table, the question has become: is now the time to fight for these demands?

If not now, then when? You lose a moment. You have an opportunity now. The law of the country is going to be rewritten. The important thing is that women don’t go backwards, that the rights that women currently have are not undermined by the new constitution and new laws. Egypt has some relatively progressive laws for women. But it also says no law can contradict Sharia. How that is interpreted and reconciled will be very important. But you don’t want to lose what constitutional rights already exist.

How do you see the Arab Spring playing out for women?

It’s an awakening of young people and their articulation for the type of world they want to live in. This world is somewhat pious but includes more political freedom. But what does that mean in terms of social freedom? We’ve heard a little less about that. And of course personal freedom, but it also impacts religious minorities and everyone a little differently outside the mainstream.

These traditionally have been very rigid societies. This whole notion of freedom is amorphous. Will new systems include minority rights? Women will be the biggest litmus test.

Moving forward for new governments in the region, do you support representational quotas for women? (In Egypt’s 2010 parliamentary elections, 64 women-only seats were added to the lower house of parliament for two five-year terms)

I personally have gone back and forth on this issue because it has a downside, but at this stage when I look around at countries that have used quotas—if it were not for the quotas, you wouldn’t have any women’s representation, I think. Even if the women aren’t necessarily promoting a women’s friendly agenda, I think it’s effective. That happens. You’ve seen that in Pakistan and Iraq and Afghanistan. I think just having women in the public space as political leaders, and by going to work everyday they’re breaking stereotypes. And I think it shortcuts women’s advancement and entry into government by a generation or more.

What is your prognosis on “gender equality” in Egypt?

I view the whole question of women’s rights as a litmus test for the whole revolution. Is Egypt going to become a much more conservative place dominated by religious parties? Or is it going to be a much more vibrant open system where religious leaders will have to govern among many types. I’m hopeful it’ll be the latter, but it remains to be seen how they will fare in completely new landscapes.

Do the Muslim Brotherhood and, distinctly, the new boogeyman – the Salafis pose legitimate threats?

I don’t think they pose a political threat, but they’ve made cultural inroads. The Salafi narrative for women is definitely going backwards. It’s a question of how much traction and appeal in the new Egypt that Salafi mentality will have.

The problem isn’t gender equality or women’s equality. The problem is the broader question of human rights and democracy. Many of these secular revolutionaries go outside of the square or Cairo, and can’t even get traction for democracy, let alone gender equality. Some of the young more secular leaders in Tahrir will grow increasingly frustrated in getting some Egyptians to engage on big picture issues. Around the country where they’ve held sessions…people are skeptical and suspicious. So I think multiple approaches will be required. Groups need to start using different languages and approaches for different communities. You’re talking about 85% of Egyptians who say they want a constitution that gives a central role to Sharia. What does that mean exactly? How will that be interpreted? These are important questions.

What is the legacy of Mubarak’s perceived advancement of women’s rights?

The problem for women’s rights in Egypt is that it’s so closely associated with Mubarak and Suzanne Mubarak. Many human rights activists and women’s rights activists have moved away from a women’s rights agenda in Egypt because it was so closely related to Suzanne and they didn’t want to be complicit in her agenda.

Mubarak was a stooge of America. He was the water boy of the west. Of course he’d have quotas for women…they wanted to promote gender rights. It was a facade. The quotas were not legitimate. If in fact the new government is more representative and freely-elected, if they have quotas, they will have more credibility.

But it seems there’s a quiet revolution going on for women. In America, many people stop me and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Women used to wear mini-skirts around Cairo, now they wear headscarves. They have gone backwards.” There’s still very much a conflation with the headscarf and oppression of women that some people in the West still can’t move beyond. And of course it’s a much more complex issue than that. And in a country like Egypt, many women began wearing the headscarf for a variety reasons. Some wear it because its an outward side of piety. Or a political statement. Many wore it as a statement against enforced secularism of the Mubarak regime. Or authoritarian secularism in general. It’s complicated, but a point many in the west still can’t move beyond. And need to.