Zeinab Radwan, Souad Israeil and Manal Aboul-Hassan are three women who are running for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Radwan, a prominent professor of Islamic Sharia law and deputy speaker of the 2005-2010 People’s Assembly, is running for a women’s quota seat in Cairo as a candidate of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
Israeil, a general practice doctor, is also running on behalf of the NDP for a women’s quota seat, but in Luxor.
Aboul-Hassan, a professor of mass media in Al-Azhar University and an associate of the outlawed but popular Muslim Brotherhood, is also running in Cairo, but not on a woman’s quota seat. She is contesting the Heliopolis/Nasr City district, running against NDP Oil Minister Sameh Fahmi.
These are three of 469 women who are contesting, along with 5725 candidates overall, some 454 regular seats and 64 additional seats reserved only for women.
In theory, women are legally eligible to run for any seat. Traditionally, however, this has not been the case. Most political parties have refrained from putting forward women nominees. Neither the NDP nor the Muslim Brotherhood (who fielded a considerable number of candidates and sports a solid voting bloc) has been an exception to this rule. In the past, most women MPs have entered parliament as one of 10 appointees the constitution allows the head of state to select.
This year, however, upon an initiative put forward jointly by the Higher Council for Women, chaired by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, and the ruling NDP, the women’s quota is being reintroduced after being suspended following an initial 10-year run from 1979, upon the initiative of then First Lady Jihan Sadat. It is also being more than doubled, from 30 to 64 seats. Above all, it has been firmly enshrined in the constitution and in relevant parliamentary regulations as part of wider amendments introduced in 2007.
According to the new regulations, two seats will be reserved for women representing 25 governorates. This reservation is doubled for four governorates with large populations: Cairo, Dakkahliya, Sharkkiyah and Behiyrah.
“We are taking the long road to fairer representation,” said Radwan, whose constitutional input has been instrumental not just to the reintroduction of the women’s quota system, but also to other women’s rights legislation — particularly crucial personal status law.
For Radwan, the presence of more women parliamentarians is greatly significant: it is not a matter of only supporting pro-women legislation, but also of including women’s perspective in all legislation.
“Our participation would not just be about the issues of women, but also about the issues of the family and those of society,” said Israeil who is lobbying hard to promote her long years of dedicated public service over sensitivities prompted by her out of fashion biblical name and her Christianity.
Both Radwan and Israeil have been investing considerable time in communicating with their constituencies, listening to problems and promising answers inspired by the hope and determination to work for a more egalitarian society whereby women would face less discrimination in education, healthcare, social rights and job opportunities.
“We have to spare women from being threatened by discriminating social status laws,” said Radwan.
“We have to find the right blend between legislation and awareness campaigns to expedite the call against female genital mutilation,” said Israeil.
For Muslim Brotherhood candidate Aboul-Hassan, “equal rights, responsibilities and duties for all Egyptians” have always followed from Islamic Sharia. She argues that the relevant criteria is not the rights of women but the rights of women as the Muslim Brotherhood deems in accordance with the group’s interpretation of Sharia.
As such, Aboul-Hassan is not prepared to support possible legislation to incriminate the physical mutilation of young girls, because she believes this is something that is not prohibited by Sharia, according to available interpretations. Moreover, she would work against legislation that stipulates a minimum age for the marriage of girls, because such a stipulation is not in line with Sharia.
Like Israeil, Aboul-Hassan is keen to work on matters related to education. They both want better schools, better-trained teachers, and more modern pedagogical styles. However, while Israeil is keen to also see the textbooks moving closer to the concepts of equal citizenship, Aboul-Hassan is keen for a heavier dose of Sharia-based regulations (at least the interpretation of Sharia with which she agrees).
But for Asmaa, a 23-year old graduate of a trade institute in Qena, the question is not more Sharia or more citizenship. “I want Qena to be a better place where people kind find jobs and live comfortably,” she said.
Asmaa is worried about the limited increase in job opportunities in Upper Egypt. “This is making young men leave Egypt,” said Asmaa who works as a sales assistant in a pharmacy. Consequently more women are finding it harder to find the right partner while an increasing number are “forced” to find jobs to support themselves, “when there are not enough jobs to go around — neither for men nor for women”.
For Emane and Kawthar, both in their early 20s, two hairdressers in a humble beauty salon in Sohag, the equality they are looking for is not between women and men, but between “the people of Upper Egypt and the people of Cairo and the big cities”. “This is something that anyone could work for (in parliament) — a man or a woman, it makes no difference.”
None of the three young women are planning to vote, not even for the women’s quota seats. They say they would rather spend their time socialising or at work, because one might net a future husband, while the other brings much needed money.