Every year, the world joins in a worldwide and national campaign between 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) and 10 December (Human Rights Day) to send a message that violence against women is a violation of human rights and that it must be ended.
In Egypt, for a decade or more, we have witnessed increased violence against women and girls with rising numbers of incidents of sexual harassment and gang rapes during social and political events. This propelled physical and sexual violence against women to the surface for the media and civil action groups, especially since the national uprising and revolutions of January 2011 and June 2013.
Some non-experts believe violence against women is limited to physical violence, but this undermines the issue of violence and ways of confronting it and ignores many other forms of violence that have long-term effects on the status of women in Egypt. Thus, there is emphasis on effective participation of women as voters in the political process but not as candidates, as a result of a cultural, political and economic tradition and violence that has negatively influenced the role of women in elected councils, or even political parties. The 16-day campaign to end violence against women — from 25 November to 10 December — still raises the banner of "No to sexual harassment," although violence also extends to exclusion and stereotyping in political life because of violence.
If political participation by women enjoyed the same level of political determination and persistent effort by civil society groups as does the issue of sexual harassment, Egypt’s political map would change as would the status of women. Media attention and focus of women’s groups on physical violence played a key role in the decision by the state to address the issue of violence against women, especially regarding penalties for sexual harassment and rape, and recognising domestic violence that had been ignored. Today, it has national and social recognition that was not possible in the past because there was no political will and because of ignorance of the scope of the problem.
The creation of a unit in the Egyptian Ministry of Interior for crimes of violence against women in May 2013, and training 10 female officers and social workers in the US, and signing a cooperation protocol between this unit and the National Council for Women in September 2013, were positive institutional measures undertaken by the state. However, the absence of a clear vision of the role and mission of this unit, and whether it will expand to other governorates in Egypt, makes it obscure. Is it a unit for law enforcement or a unit for reaching settlements? Also, the creation of this unit has not yet been announced to the public, the target beneficiaries.
Without a definition of what constitutes violence against women little real progress can be made. This is the definition as stated in the 1993 Declaration for Eliminating Violence against Women, articles 1-3: the articles define violence against women as any form of violence, based on gender, that results in or may result in physical, psychological or sexual harm to women. It also includes denial of any human rights, most importantly the right to not be discriminated against. Thus, we see the importance of women exercising their inalienable right of participating in the public and political process. However, there are growing manifestations of violence against women participating as candidates that take forms other than physical violence, such as moral defamation and other societal pressures that exclude and stereotype women.
Violence against women in the political domain is part of the general context of political violence on the one hand, and violence against women on the other. Political violence is determined by the desire and struggle over power, and methods to impede contenders and activists from participating or reaching power. Meanwhile, violence against women is used in politics to impede the participation of women in all political events and goals. This creates a discrepancy between constitutional rights and social reality, and non-participation. Also, there are 500 reported cases of mob sexual assaults according to the report “Keeping Women Out – Sexual violence in the public sphere” issued by the International Federation for Human Rights and the New Women Foundation. This figure, when added to actions by political forces in the 2005 and 2010 elections before the revolution, and during protests following the January and June revolutions, shows that violence against women in public politics has become systematic to prevent women from political participation and stereotype them to a limited number of roles where they don’t compete with men.
Unfortunately, at a time when we thought we are beyond talking about the importance of female political participation, the new players in Egyptian society after the January 25 Revolution demonstrate our need to discuss this vital issue and its links to violence. By new players, we mean currents of political Islam on the one hand and female and male political activists on the other, including political parties, and not excluding liberal parties, that shocked the public by marginalising women after the January 25 Revolution and insulting them by using a picture of a rose instead of the face of female candidates during campaigns by Salafist parties. While the election of a woman to head the Dostour Party is a landmark in the political progress of women, female participation as voters will remain the dilemma, challenge and issue for a democratic conscientious society.
Article 11 of the 2014 Constitution stresses “equality between women and men in all civil, political, social and cultural rights based on the Constitution. The state will take measures to guarantee women are appropriately represented in representative councils as dictated by law. It also guarantees women their right to ascend to public office, senior administrative positions in the state, and appointment to judicial bodies without discrimination. The state is committed to protecting women against all forms of violence, and enabling women to combine family duties and work requirements.”
Article 5 of the latest electoral law of 2014 assigns a percentage of women on party lists, but the figure is inadequate and unfair at a minimum of 10 per cent. This is an inadequate legislative, political and societal formula to politically empower women in light of the political violence practiced by society and political heavyweights against women to keep them out and restrict their role in public life. The only chance for women to win a seat in the next parliament is through party lists, while individual female candidates have little hope in this polarised and violently competitive environment, with limited economic resources for women in general.
The constitutional question based on Article 11 remains: How can the state protect women from all forms of violence during the next elections, especially female candidates? Also, what is the role of the state in promoting independent female candidates, and the role of civil society in boosting the role of women in political and representative life beyond training candidates, but also preparing society in general and activating the role of women within political parties?
The writer is chairperson of Hatshepsut Foundation for Development and Human Rights.