Egyptian history was made last week when Hala Shukralla became the first woman to be elected leader of a major political party. She will represent Al-Dostour; a centre-left party founded by Mohammed ElBaradei, with a strong youth following and links to the revolution of 2011.

Her election has been reported as reflecting a major shift in the country’s attitudes since the revolution and Hosni Mubarak’s removal from power, but I can’t help but feel that this doesn’t do justice to the Egyptian people. The media coverage gives the impression that the women’s rights are a new concept in a Egypt and, although it is true that negative and oppressive attitudes towards women were prolific in the years leading up to the revolution, throughout the majority of the 20th century Egypt was an exemplary patron of sexual equality and progressive thinking in the Arab world.

In his book ‘On the State of Egypt: What Caused the Revolution’ Alla Al Aswany writes that Egyptian women were ‘the first to be educated and to work in every field, the first to drive cars and fly planes, and the first to enter parliament and government.’ He tells the story of Hoda Shaarawi, the pioneering Egyptian feminist who in 1919 ‘took the Turkish burka off her face at a public ceremony as a sign that the liberation of the country was inseparable from the liberation of women.’ So if for many years women did enjoy the benefits of a more liberal and moderate Islamic society, even engaging in politics, what changed? Why did Egypt become a country where sexual harassment and oppression of women were the norm?

The answer lies with the infiltration of Wahhabist ideals that entered Egypt in the late 1970s. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist form of Islam, popular in the Gulf states, that spread into Egypt via the millions of impoverished people who returned after having spent years working in Saudi Arabia. In December 2013 Al Aswany wrote, in an article for the New York Times, ‘…for Wahhabis, a woman’s job is to please her husband and provide offspring. Wahhabi preachers promote female genital mutilation, to control women’s sexuality. A woman must cover her body completely and may not study, work or travel. She cannot even leave the house without her husband’s permission.’

Under the Mubarak regime, the local enforcement and consequential further social entrenchment of these ’moral codes’ saw the situation for women worsen but, can we really say that the Egyptian majority changed its views on women’s rights over the past 40 years? Can it really be assumed that an entire generation, who had enjoyed the benefits of a moderate Islamic society, would change their beliefs so drastically and so quickly?

Is it not fairer to say that fear and the repression of democracy stopped these people from voicing their true views on the issue of women’s rights and that it largely still does today? Under Mubarak’s rule debate on these issues was not an option and even afterwards, in June 2012, a group of women protesters were ambushed and sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square, in an attempt to discourage their speaking-out on the issue.

The stifling of political debate of any kind still continues today, with the Egyptian government imprisoning political campaigners just last week. But as 2011 proved, Egyptians will not be silenced or discouraged from voicing their demands for liberation. So perhaps in this sense there has been a change in social attitude, a confidence that was not there before to demand the sexual equality that has been beaten out of this great nation over the past 40 years. Hoda Shaarawi was right; the liberation of Egypt IS inseparable from the liberation of women, and the battle has not been won yet. We can only hope that Hala Shukralla’s election can further encourage Egyptian women to carry on fighting.

Written by Francesca Bassenger. Image © Lorenz Khazaleh.