As Egypt joins the world in celebrating International Women’s day on Wednesday, feminists and women's rights activists say important steps towards more gender equality have been taken in the country, though some believe much more needs to be done.
The month of March features three women-related events in Egypt; the International Women's Day on 8 March, the Egyptian Women's Day on 16 March, and Mother’s Day on 21 March.
Rania Yehia, member of the semi-governmental National Council for Women (NCW), confirmed to Ahram Online that El-Sisi will honour a promise he made last year to the council and will soon announce 2017 as the year of women in a public conference.
Women’s rights advocates talked to Ahram Online about their perspectives in furthering women empowerment in the most populous Arab country.
More women in high positions, but gender disparity persists
Women make up 49 percent of Egypt’s population of 91 million.
In 2015, Egyptian women comprised only 22.5 percent of the workforce, according to an emailed statement by Egypt’s official statistics body CAPMAS.
Women are the main bread winners in around 30 percent of all households in the country.
At the end of 2016, unemployment among women stood at 25.3 percent compared to 8.5 percent among men, according to official statistics.
However, Yehia says that great steps have been made in the efforts to empower women, referring to the high percentage of women currently in parliament, the existence of four female ministers in the cabinet and the recent appointment of the first-ever female governor in Egypt’s history, Nadia Abdou, for the mostly rural Beheira governorate in the Nile Delta.
Yehia also pointed out that women now make up 43 percent of administrative positions at prosecutors' offices.
However, Yehia says that women’s representation in public positions as a whole is “not satisfactory” and that more needs to be done.
“In the 21st century in Egypt, women should constitute more than just 0.5 percent of the judiciary,” Yehia said.
According to justice ministry reports in 2015, the percentage of women working in the judiciary amounts to 0.6 percent.
"There should be more women in leadership roles in the government, in the State Council, in the cabinet, and even in the military,” Yehia added.
“Women should not be limited to administrative positions within the police and army, but should be on the frontlines,” she said.
Government statistics show that women constitute only 26 percent of Egyptian public sector employees and 21.3 percent of workers in Egyptian embassies and consulates.
New laws are step in right direction, but more needed
"There should have been a clear government strategy [to empower women] before the start of this year. There are efforts, but a plan on the legislative and executive levels is needed, as arrangements do not occur haphazardly. So, I cannot put high hopes on the Women's Year idea, unless the presidency has surprises in store," argues Nehad Abou El-Komsan, the head of Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR).
"This is the first time Egypt has had a female governor; it is important because this fights extremist ideas in society; the governorship is a more critical office than heading a ministry, since the governor deals with people directly; it is a very important step for politics and for women's rights overall," Abou El-Komsan said.
However, Mozn Hassan, the director of Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, told Ahram Online that "the appointment of a female governor is a good step, but Egyptian women have had the right to vote since the 1950s. We are in 2016, and we only have one female governor. I cannot believe we are still debating the same basic demands every March."
On the other hand, Azza Soliman, women’s rights activist and head of the Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA), praised Abdou’s appointment as governor, adding that proper representation of women in all areas based on competence is key to their advancement.
"There are now almost 90 female MPs in parliament, which is the highest percentage of women in legislature in Egypt's history," Hassan said.
Hassan says that the high number of women MPs is a direct result of women's rights enshrined in the 2014 constitution, and this shows that the state could implement more affirmative action in this area.
Article 11 of the 2014 constitution stipulates that "the state shall ensure the achievement of equality between women and men in all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in accordance with the provisions of this constitution. The state shall take the necessary measures to ensure the appropriate representation of women in the houses of representatives, as specified by law. The state shall also guarantee women’s right of holding public and senior management offices in the state and their appointment in judicial bodies and authorities without discrimination."
The same article also says that “the state shall be committed to protecting women against all forms of violence and shall guarantee that women are empowered to reconcile their family responsibilities with their work commitments.”
In mid-2014, Egypt criminalised sexual harassment for the first time, with violators facing minimum jail terms of six months and/or fines of EGP 3,000 to EGP 5,000, with harassment defined as using physical, verbal or electronic communication, or any other action, that carries sexual or pornographic connotations.
Around 46 percent of married women aged 18 to 64 years in Egypt have experienced some form of spousal abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, according to government surveys.
In May 2015, Egypt launched a nationwide project to combat violence against women to be implemented from 2015 to 2020.
However, no draft law has been referred to parliament addressing violence against women as a whole or domestic violence in particular.
"We are not like Iran or Saudi Arabia, we have regulations, but they have a lot of issues so need to be changed. Advancement in women’s issues has been gaining ground in society in recent years, but still more actions need to be taken and there should be transparency in the plans and actions regarding women," added Hassan.
Egypt ranks 132 out of 144 countries in gender equality, making it among the 20 bottom countries globally, according to the Global Gender Gap report 2016 published by the World Economic Forum. Egypt is outranked by some Arab countries like Qatar, Tunisia and Algeria.
Changes in laws and societal discourse on gender needed
Yehia said that the NCW will launch different initiatives on 16 March – Egyptian Women's Day – through its 27 branches across the country to work on various issues of concern to women; including development, reproductive health, and violence against women.
The council has a strategy till 2030 that works on the economic, political, social safety net and legislation levels, Yehia said.
Soliman believes that the Egyptian government should work to meet its international commitments on the ratified Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Universal Periodical Reviews (UPR) of Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
This requires advocates to work on different levels from legislation and representation to media and societal outreach.
Abou El-Komsan believes that many things could be done, such as a law by the social solidarity ministry that requires all work places to provide nurseries for the children of women workers, saying such legislation would help working mothers and increase the percentage of women in the workforce.
The government could also award preferential treatment in business tenders to companies that provide representative work opportunities to women, Abou El-Komsan suggests.
"Both the personal status [family] law, and the recently passed civil service law should be changed; the first is unfair to women and needs to consider women as partners in families, the second includes provisions that make it hard for women employees [mothers and wives] to be promoted at their work," Abou El-Komsan says.
Hassan believes that the government should open channels of dialogue with women about their needs.
Hassan also believes that "a law to prevent violence against women is needed, equal opportunities for women are needed. We need to re-define rape, and we need a law that criminalises marital rape. A law and specialised courts in dealing with violence against women is important, and the government should provide treatment for violence survivors."
Yehia says that the NCW is working on two proposals to be submitted to parliament: one for penalties in cases of violence against women and the second for amendments in the personal status code.
Abou El-Komsan and Hassan agree that clear laws and their proper implementation are urgent for improving women's lives, saying women should not simply wait for ideas in society on gender issues to change.
Soliman, however, says both legislation and raising awareness should go hand in hand.
“Women’s representation and legislation are the priority, but we also need to work on the societal culture; through religious authorities and the media. We need media that supports women, media that does not insult them,” Soliman says.