Egyptian women still struggling for rights 2 years after revolution

Dina Samir, Tuesday 12 Feb 2013

Women's groups are actively campaigning for women's rights despite what they describe as inadequate electoral laws, poor political representation and a problematic constitution

Egypt’s Women
Women queue to vote in a referendum on Egypt's new constitution at a school used as a polling station in Alexandria, December 15, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

"The revolution is not 18 days, nor a year, or two. The revolution is permanent. The fact that we, women, have not reached our aspirations does not mean we should lose hope,” women's rights activist Mariam Kirollos told Ahram Online.

Kirollos said that she is proud of Egyptian women who have been active during the Egyptian revolution either on the front lines, or in the field hospitals and polling stations.

However, women's political representation in 2012, whether in the Constituent Assembly or the dissolved parliament, is far from what Kirollos and other women’s rights activists aspire to.

 “We are moving backward,” said Nehad Abou El-Komsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), explaining that the current cabinet of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil after the latest reshuffle includes only one woman, “which was the case 60 years ago during President Nasser’s time.”

Abou El-Komsan added that there were four female minsters in the last cabinet of Mubarak’s presidency.

The Egyptian women's status report for 2012 by ECWR also reveals the factual deterioration of women’s position. Egypt ranked first among countries witnessing a decline in the political status of women, ranking 126 on women's rights this year according to the Global Gender Gap Report.

Regarding women’s holding ministerial positions, Egypt ranked 95 out of 125 countries. As for women holding governor positions, Egypt ranked the lowest, with zero female governors.

Egypt also ranked first in the list of countries that recorded a decline in economic opportunities for women compared to previous years. As for the proportion of women to men in the labour force, Egypt ranked 130 out of 134 countries, as the percentage of unemployment among women is four times higher than that to men.

A problematic constitution

Women occupied seven per cent of the Constituent Assembly formed in 2012 to formulate the current constitution.

“Most of its female members belonged to Islamic parties and do not speak for the majority of Egyptian women,” said Mona Ezzat, member of the New Woman Foundation, adding that the only female human rights activist in the assembly, Manal El-Tibi, resigned.

Ezzat explained that different women’s rights organisations presented suggestions to the Constituent Assembly regarding women’s rights to be tackled in the constitution; “however, their efforts went down the drain.”

One of the suggestions was establishing an organisation that women can approach when encountering inequality.

“The constitution instead included generic words and lacked mechanisms to protect against gender inequality and violence.”

The constitution also includes problematic articles for women. Abou El-Komsan referred to Article 10, which is the only article that addresses women as a particular group and was part of the moral foundations of society chapter, stating that, “the state shall provide free motherhood and childhood services and shall balance between a woman’s obligations toward the family and public work. The state shall provide for special care and protection for single mothers, divorced women and widows.”

Abou El-Komsan explained that it implies a limitation for women as “caregivers.”

“Also, raising children is a societal responsibility; it is not only the mother’s.”

Reacting to this article, Human Rights Watch said, “the state’s role should be confined to ensuring equality and non-discrimination, without interfering with a woman’s choices about her life, family, and profession or to justify discrimination on that basis.”

Abou El-Komsan referred to Article 36, which states that “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."

The phrase, "rules of Islamic jurisprudence" can open the door to extremist interpretations of jurisprudence that can be hostile to women, Abou El-Komsan noted. 

The dissolved parliament

Although different  women's organisations and the National Council for Human Rights opted for the quota system to safeguard women's representation in the 2011/2012 parliament, the quota system was cancelled and instead it was established that "each list should include at least one woman," the ECWR’s report, What Women Lost and What Egypt Lost, stated.

In the nomination phase, the political parties “broke their promises” about having female candidates near the top of the lists, which led to two per cent representation of women in the parliament.

 Abou El-Komsan noted that four women of the eight elected in the now-dissolved parliament were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “I do not consider Brotherhood female members as representatives of Egyptian women because their first loyalty is to the Brotherhood,” she stated.

Furthermore, the dissolved parliament that was dominated by members affiliated with political Islam included moves hostile to women, the first ECWR report revealed. The Freedom and Justice former parliament member Mohamed El-Omda requested the cancelation of Article 20 of the litigation procedures of the Personal Status Law, the so-called khola law.

Former Nour Party MP Hamada Soliman requested the reduction of the age of custody to nine for girls and seven for boys, instead of 15 for boys and until marriage for girls.

“There is no hope for women's empowerment and equality under the current regime,” Ezzat said, contemplating the future of women’s rights in Egypt.

Abou El-Komsan expects weak female representation in the coming parliament, especially as the Shura Council recently rejected a proposal that would have mandated that at least one woman be included “in the first half of each electoral list.”

Similar to the previous elections, Abou El-Komsan expects that women will be positioned at the bottom of electoral lists.

Abou El-Komsan went on to explain that 108 countries in the world follow the quota system for women, including Sweden and India, to ensure women's representation as a way to protect women against “culture ills” within societies.

 “The whole idea of having a woman on every electoral list is just there to send a message to the Brotherhood's foreign ally that they are not against women. If they were truly keen on women's empowerment, they would have invested in developing new female cadres able to compete and win.”

Ezzat also noted that the current regime is not interested in women’s education or political empowerment. “It serves them best if women remain uneducated so they can make use of them as an election bloc whose votes they can buy with essential goods."

Although 2012 treated Egyptian women unfairly, they responded with persistence and activism. More than 50 women's marches were organised in 2012 that either called for women’s rights or other demands, the ECWR first report noted.

Women also used creative ways to defend their causes, such as cutting their hair to protest the constitution or holding cooking pans to protest the rise of prices.

On a positive note, Kirollos mentioned the increase of awareness on women’s rights among women of Egypt. “Egyptian women started to realise that they are not second-class citizens.”

Ezzat believes that the hope for women’s rights in Egypt lies in the success of the revolution; when the revolutionary forces that called for social justice lead the country.

For Kirollos, hope lies in Egyptian women and their determination. “The more oppression women experience, the more they fight back.”

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