Human Rights as Law, Language, and Space-Making: Women’s Rights Movement in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

Emma Sundkvist

Forskningsoutput: AvhandlingDoktorsavhandling (sammanläggning)

624 Nedladdningar (Pure)


This dissertation analyses feminist activists’ use of human rights in post-revolutionary Egypt from 2011 to 2019. Drawing on interviews with feminist activists under three fieldwork trips, the dissertation investigates how: activists tried to implement gender equality in the country’s new constitutions, navigated the shrinking public space after 2013, sustained their activism against sexual violence despite a fragmented movement and repressive politics, and how we can understand contentious streets activism against sexual violence from a human rights perspective. The overarching question is how activists pursue human rights activism in a post-revolutionary setting, focusing on what function human rights are given in a context of some opportunities but also growing constraints. To answer that question, the dissertation develops a three-dimensional framework that conceptualises human rights as law, language, and space-making. The dissertation thereby contributes to theories of human rights activism as well as research on women’s rights activism in post-2011 Egypt. The three-dimensional framework helps to capture and analyse how human rights – whether used as law, language, or space-making – challenge different societal and political aspects of women’s rights.

The findings and arguments draw primarily on semi-structured and in-depth interviews conducted under fieldwork trips in 2013, 2015, and 2019. The study also involves ethnographic observations and text analysis. The analysis of these source materials is based on the ontological position that to know what human rights are, we need to explore how activists use human rights and the ways in which they navigate their political surrounding. This position invites scholars to avoid applying pre-defined understandings of human rights and instead investigate how certain political conditions facilitate different modes of activism and what meanings and functions human rights acquire in them.

The thesis comprises four original articles. Article 1 concerns the drafting of two Egyptian constitutions after 2011 and how feminist activists attempted to integrate gender equality into different versions. The article argues that while activists used international human rights principles and a feminist definition of equality as their starting points, they also had to navigate the politics of the Egyptian constitution-making process to find resonance within their communities. Article 2 analyses the period after 2013, a period when the Egyptian political landscape became more oppressive under the rule of President Abd el Fattah el-Sisi. This article focuses on how activists pursued human rights advocacy during such conditions. It argues that, in a context where mobilization and activism for human rights are restricted, legal activism may have means and implications other than reinforcing state power. Article 3 concerns how young feminists try to sustain their activism, especially in their work against sexual violence, which became rather fragmented in the decade since the revolution. The empirical material comes from 2019, a point at which women’s rights were integrated with revolutionary memories and emotions and gained a function of keeping the feminist struggle alive. The final Article 4 analyses the movement against widespread sexual violence in the turbulent political landscape from 2011 to 2013. By developing the concept of human rights as space-making, this article reveals how activism for women’s right to bodily integrity transformed into a movement that claimed women’s rights to reconstitute the preconditions for Egyptian politics.
Tilldelande institution
  • Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna
  • Halldenius, Lena, handledare
  • Lindkvist, Linde, Biträdande handledare, Extern person
Tilldelningsdatum2022 maj 13
ISBN (tryckt)978-91-89415-18-8
ISBN (elektroniskt)978-91-89415-19-5
StatusPublished - 2022 apr. 11

Bibliografisk information

Defence details
Date: 2020-05-13
Time: 13.15
Place: LUX C121
External reviewer:
Name: Mulki Al-Sharmani
Title: Professor
Affiliation: University of Helsinki

Ämnesklassifikation (UKÄ)

  • Övrig annan humaniora

Fria nyckelord

  • Egypt
  • Human rights
  • Women's movement
  • Post-revolution
  • Feminist activism


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