How far will Egypt's new constitution change the position of women?

Mary Mourad, Tuesday 25 Sep 2012

Some women fear that even if their rights are protected by the new constitution, an Islamist-dominated state would find ways to reduce them in practice

Women protesters stand in a group during nearby clashes with Egyptian riot police in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011 (Photo:AP)

As Egypt's Constituent Assembly moves closer to completing the long-awaited draft constitution, concerns have been raised regarding articles dealing with the status and rights of women. Some commentators have predicted a reduction in woman's rights from those guaranteed in the 1971 constitution, whilst others have suggested there will be little change.

Article 11 of the 1971 constitution states:

"The State shall guarantee harmonisation between the duties of woman towards the family and her work in the society, ensuring her equal status with man in fields of political, social, cultural and economic life without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence."

This is to be compared with article 36 of the proposed draft constitution:

"The state is committed to taking all constitutional and executive measures to ensure equality of women with men in all walks of political, cultural, economic and social life, without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence."

Amr Shalakany, professor of law at the American University in Cairo, said the new article has more details on the state's commitment to women's rights and is more straightforward:

"[Article 36 of the draft constitution] holds the state directly responsible [for women's rights] through the legislative and executive arms, while the previous article [of the 1971 constitution] was not detailed on how such matters would be guaranteed. The problem is that it keeps women in the same position as the old constitution."

There is an inconsistency between the term 'rules of Islamic jurisprudence' used in article 36 and the term 'principles of Islamic jurisprudence' used in article 2 of the same draft constitution, which describes the main source of Egyptian legislation, explained Magda Adly of the Nadeem Centre.

"[the state] wishes to control matters of divorce and inheritance by using stricter words. However, we already know how to respond to that, a skill we gained from the long struggle for women's rights," Adly said, in reference to the term 'rules' and the broader term 'principles'.

"The current law, which gives women the right to divorce her husband, is in full compliance with Islamic Sharia law. Whilst the law of inheritance isn't even applied because most females in rural areas don't inherit anything due to social norms even though Islamic law permits it," Adly protested, noting that Islamic law is not the only thing hindering women's rights in Egypt.

It would be dangerous to leave the article the same under the new Islamist government because they might not be sympathetic to women's rights, Adly added.

"The old regime pretended to side with modernity," Adly said, "and agreed to sign on to various international conventions on women's rights, and through a long struggle, we were able to secure laws against sexual harassment and others."

However, "The current [Islamist] regime isn't likely to side with women, and leaving this article as it was [under the 1971 constitution] will likely reopen questions such as the minimum age of marriage which some Salafists [ultra-conservative Islamists] claim should be as low as 9-years-old."

During an interview with Yousri Fouda on the ONTV satellite channel, Rabab El-Mahdy, professor of political science at AUC, said article 11 of the 1971 constitution should not be kept in the current constitution because the new constitution should reflect the spirit of the revolution where men and women participated together to win freedom.

"It's difficult from these drafts to tell which are the basic principles of freedoms," according to Hania Sholkamy, professor of anthropology at AUC, "or what is the balance of powers between the various state bodies. Therefore we're discussing details and are not able to see the full picture."

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