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An Egyptian career woman? Soon it could be rare

Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Women shout slogans against the Egyptian military council before marching with other women to mark International Women's Day in Cairo on Thursday.

CAIRO, Egypt – International Women's Day took on special meaning for the more than 1,000 Egyptian women who braved harassment to march through downtown Cairo Wednesday. 

The demonstration was sparked by the belief of many women that the recent political victories by socially conservative Islamists, who now control over 70 percent of the parliament, will eventually undermine the few hard-fought rights they have won. 

“The situation is going backward,” complained flight attendant Nadia Salim. “The Salafists (conservative Islamists who believe in a strict interpretation of Sharia law and that women should have a limited role in society) and Muslim Brotherhood will bring us back 100 years.”

Trying to preserve existing rights
The women said they took to the streets not to gain more rights, but to preserve those they already enjoy.  "We have to hold onto what we have because of the Salafists and Islamists," warned university professor Iman Azzad. 

Their main demand is that women should make up half of the committee that will draft Egypt's new constitution.  Women fear that the Islamist majority will take away their right to divorce and to win custody of their children

"Women are half of society," said Salim. "Why shouldn’t we form half of the constitutional committee?"

Activist Dina Abou El Soud said she had heard that the country’s judges had plans for women to make up only a 10 percent of the panel shaping Egypt's next constitution. She believes women's rights will be the first thing to be sacrificed in order to please the Islamist majority. 

It’s a sea change from the ousted regime of President Hosni Mubarak, when women were guaranteed 64 parliamentary seats.  In the latest post-revolutionary elections, the quota was eliminated and women won only five seats.  "The other seats went to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists," said El Soud, co-founder of the Revolutionary Women's Coalition, which has 4,000 members on Facebook.

 "We are going backward, backward and backward," she added as she passed out fliers in English and Arabic. "It is time to make a women's revolution”

Charlene Gubash / NBC News

Mahy al Aref, left, and her mother, Magda al Akkad, right, at the International Women's Day march in Cairo on Wednesday.

El Soud also said that Islamists are trying to discredit existing women's rights by suggesting they were imposed by the Mubarak regime, deriding them as "Suzanne Mubarak's Laws,” the name of the former first lady.

"It’s ridiculous. They are international women's rights that we have gained,” she said.  

Ready for drastic measures
Considering what Egypt's roughly 40 million women stand to lose, Wednesday's turnout was miniscule. Mahy al Aref, a well-dressed pharmacy graduate, said the small crowd was probably due “a lack of educational awareness.”

She said she is worried about putting her German university degree to good use in an increasingly conservative society, a concern shared by her mother, Magda al Akkad, who runs an NGO. "I am worried because of the Islamist direction,” she said. “They have their ideas. I don't know where it will go, but I don't think they will be fair to women in general."

Al Akkad said she said she can foresee a day when Egypt would become unlivable for her and her daughter.  "If fanatics rule, I will leave this country,” she declared.