At eight years old in Cairo, Dalia Ziada’s parents dressed her up and told her they were taking her to a picnic. But they took her to the doctor instead, for a female genital mutilation surgery, a legal and common practice in Egypt at the time. Though the surgery was painful, Ziada found that the psychological hurt was more persistent.
She promised herself she would prevent other girls in her family from going through the same experience. She fought hard with the elders of her family. Some of the men eventually changed their mind, and this led Ziada, almost two decades ago, at 17, to launch a campaign with some of her college classmates to spread awareness about FGM, a then-taboo topic. Though Ziada said people insulted and looked down on them, she saw that this was the path to change. “Pain is not always bad,” she said. “Sometimes, pain could be the spark lighting your way through life.”
Now, at 34, Ziada is a leading human rights activist and blogger in Egypt, where she has trained and inspired hundreds of other activists and bloggers – many of them young women. During and after the Arab Spring, Ziada educated activists and would-be leaders across the country about how to protest, run a party or run for Parliament. On her blog, Facebook page and in newspapers, Ziada’s posts diagnosing the country’s ills and suggesting solutions are widely read and debated. And in March, Ziada – a prominent voice of Egypt’s 2011 revolution – was invited to be a member of the government’s National Council for Women, on their foreign affairs committee. The role will require her to represent Egyptian women on the world stage, as well as look into international conventions and treaties concerning women’s rights and try to bring them into law back home.
Ziada said being part of this government group, founded in 2012 by presidential decree to empower and represent women across the country, does not diminish her ability to call out problems. “On the contrary, [it] gives me more power and a louder voice,” she said.
After a tumultuous five years for Egypt, Ziada’s goals have changed. Following a mostly democratic presidential election in 2014 and a restored parliament last year, the aim now is to build a liberal democratic state. To do this, young revolutionaries need to be transformed into politicians, she said. “Revolutionaries are not heated creatures who should be angry all the time, seeking to destroy everything that they do not like,” she said. “At a certain moment, the revolutionary should learn to calm down and see how they can participate in the process of building up a new future that compliments the vision they think is perfect.”
This, Ziada thinks, is that moment. Through the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt, a youth-led think tank she founded and leads, Ziada educates young people, many of them women under 35, about basic civil rights, how to get involved politically, and how to work directly with government officials to bring about change. Some of the graduates have been parliamentary candidates or are preparing to run for municipal council elections or train to qualify for state positions.
Ziada herself ran for Parliament in 2011, under the ticket of the centrist and secular Justice Party, though she did not win a seat. Even within her liberal party, Ziada was told she could not be listed first because the country was not yet ready for female candidates. On her blog and in other writings, Ziada had already begun to call out the problems she saw in a male-dominated society. In an essay contest organized by the American Islamic Congress, she wrote, “In my world women are as many as raindrops. Yet they have no noteworthy impact on their societies… [We] are still treated as a second-class citizens.”
Ziada’s criticism grew sharper after the Muslim Brotherhood came into power after the January 2011 revolution, and longtime leader Hosni Mubarak resigned. Ziada found their theological rule oppressive of women, just as under Mubarak. In her writing and activism, she called out their “extremist anti-human rights agenda,” which included discrimination against Christian citizens, secular thinkers, and women. She decried their support of female genital mutilation, child marriage, and the suspension of women from public life. The Muslim Brotherhood, she wrote on her blog even before they took power, were “politically-motivated” and “have very limited popularity among the young people who represent 70 percent of population.”
Ziada said she received many threats from the Muslim Brotherhood. While executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies, a Cairo-based research and advocacy group that she led for three years, she added, the Muslim Brotherhood made death threats to intimidate the NGO not to hold an event to honor a religious leader who had been killed by extremists. Ziada held the event regardless.
The Muslim Brotherhood was pushed out within a year. Ziada was not surprised to see that the majority of participants at the protests that led to their fall were women. After a new president was elected, former army leader Abdel el Fattah el-Sisi, and after parliamentary elections were announced, Ziada campaigned to prevent religious extremists from coming into power again and restricting women’s rights. The “No to Religious Parties” campaign, which she co-founded, collected some 2 million signatures from citizen across Egypt, which Ziada said pressured the government to investigate nine unconstitutional religious parties. These parties were defeated in the elections.
Now, under Sisi, Ziada is cautiously optimistic about real change for Egypt – especially for women. While some Egyptians and critics in the West remain skeptical of Sisi, citing worries about the jailing of dissenters or other human rights abuses, Ziada said those critics fail to see the whole picture. “El Sisi is the right person for Egypt right now,” she said. She points out that Sisi sided with protesters against Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, and has already begun to fight corruption inside the government. But she is proudest of the strides for women that have already taken place since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ziada points to the current constitution, which now states that men and women are equals, without provisions. She saw that idea go beyond paper when 73 women were elected to Parliament in 2015, the highest ever in Egypt’s history. “The president and his regime realize that liberal democracy is what Egyptians want,” she said. “Democracy that goes beyond the voting ballot to bring basic human rights and civil freedoms to public citizens.”
But Ziada is still aggressively fighting for more change for women, such as in the country’s violence against women laws. Though Egypt criminalized sexual harassment in 2014, the country does not have a law that more broadly criminalizes all forms of violence against women. A January Amnesty International Report said that more needed to be done to fight against mob attacks, torture in custody, and domestic violence against women, and that reforms so far were piecemeal. Ziada wants a law that encompasses all of these kinds of violence.
She is also pushing for a law that would support a constitutional quota for female judges. While Egypt recently swore in 26 female judges, many women still face hurdles in their applications.
In a post on her blog this month, Ziada wrote that what women really want now in Egypt is to be properly qualified to lead. Quotas do not work if there are not qualified candidates, she said. She noted that out of nearly 40 million female citizens, only a few hundred were educated and qualified enough to do so. “I think women are on the right track, they are on the first step of the ladder to achieving their role of equality,” she said. “But still they need to learn how to continue to learn going up the staircase.”
Ziada said she is working to get as many women going up the stairs on all levels – socially, economically and politically. They have already come far, she said. Some practices that restricted women in Egypt have already gone out of favor or been banned. Female genital mutilation was outlawed in 2007, and Ziada said the elders in her family that once supported the practice now respect her for working and having a voice in media – though not all of them.
Ziada thinks Egyptian women can say they have really achieved their goal once they see a woman president in office. “That is the moment when we’ll say, ‘yes, we made it,’” she said. “I see it coming soon.”