'Like Mohamed, like Fatemah': Egyptian women's fight for equality

Dina Ezzat, Friday 5 Oct 2012

The founder of a women’s rights group, Inas Mekkawie, says hard-won rights are being compromised by the language of the draft constitution

Egyptian female activist
An Egyptian female activist carries a placard that reads in Arabic "No to the constitution; I am a child and I have the right to play instead of marriage. No to Article 36," during a protest in Cairo, Egypt (Photo: AP)

Inas Mekkawie is angry, apprehensive, indeed almost scared. As the founder of the nearly one-year-old women’s rights organisation Bahiya ya Masr, she feels that, in the grand scheme of Egyptian politics, women are being reduced to sex objects; she is concerned that rights won with difficulty over decades will be revoked while society is busy with other matters: “some,” she says, “legitimate and pressing; others of limited if any significance”.

The attack on women’s rights, she feels, predates the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of President Mohamed Morsi. It started in the early days of the transitional period when SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) took over running the country after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down.

“Today”, argues Mekkawie, “the attack takes on a ferocious tone with the attempt to include in the constitution language that can have dire implications for women’s rights.”

On Tuesday, at six pm, Mekkawie along with other activists went for a short sit-in outside parliament where the constitutional assembly was convened. “Like Mohamed, like Fatemah,” shouted the protesters, demanding equal rights for men and women. “Women should have 50 per cent of the committee.”

The sit-in was specifically designed to protest the proposed drafts of Articles 36 and 29. Article 36, which comes under the chapter of Rights and Liberties, stipulates that the state is responsible for making necessary deliberations to secure equality between men and women; the added phrase is “so long as this does not contradict the rules of Islamic sharia”.

This is the only reference to “rules” as opposed to “principles” of Islamic sharia, which are specifically referred to in the much talked about Article 2 of the constitution as “the main source of legislation”. The “rules of Islamic sharia”, as Mekkawie points out, are not agreed upon and follow different interpretations; the use of this phrase in this article alone therefore does not bode well for the future of women in Egyptian society.

For Mekkawie, as for other activists who took part in the Tuesday sit-in, issuing a statement to explain their position, this “inexplicably exclusive reference to the rules of sharia” is uncalled for and opens the door to the endorsement of radical interpretations incompatible with the principles of tolerance and equity with which Islam has always been associated, especially in its Egyptian interpretations.

Mekkawie is keen to affirm “full respect for the edicts of Islamic sharia”, as the statement also indicates, but insists that this commitment, a largely consensual matter for most political parties and forces, should not be misused to allow the despicable calls that are made by some for the tolerance of child marriage – of girls as young as nine years old – or female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of sharia.

For Mekkawie, such practices go against sharia and against international commitments of the Egyptian state. Mekkawie added that, given the fact that these “rules” – unlike “principles” – have been cumulatively collected over 15 centuries, it is clear that they are circumstantial. Egypt is bound by international commitments to fight for women’s rights, prohibiting physical persecution on the basis of gender including FGM and child marriage.

Some have suggested that the word “rules” in this article specifically refers to inheritance rights (which give men twice more than women), others that it is designed to block the eventual legalisation of gay marriage, others still that it underlines the man’s responsibility to provide for his family – which is not the case, de facto, since 35 per cent of Egyptian families are supported by female members.

“In this case, these matters should be spelled out rather than alluded to in a confusing text that violates the constitutional principle of full equality among all citizens irrespective of gender, ethnic or religious affiliation. What we are seeing today is a serious setback on the march to securing women’s basic rights in society,” Mekkawie lamented.

No reference to “rules” was made in any constitution since the first in 1923; nor was there any in the 1971 constitution, which had been applied (with amendments) until its suspension following Mubarak’s ouster.

The call for equality and support for the political and developmental role of women are clearly stipulated in all these constitutions, but they were particularly stressed in the constitutions made under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the leader of the 23 July Revolution.

Indeed, according to a paper produced last month by the Feminist Organisations Coalition, with the exception of the Salafist Nour Party, the programme of almost every political party, Islamist as well as otherwise, including that of the Freedom and Justice Party to which the president subscribes, includes a clear reference to the need for supporting women’s equal rights in society.

Mekkawie finds no satisfactory argument made in support of the proposed language of Article 29 of the constitution that “calls on the state to prohibit” rather than directly incriminating human-trafficking.

During the last few years of Mubarak’s rule, former first lady Suzanne Mubarak took it upon herself to promote the cause of stopping human-trafficking, even as endless “summer marriages” between older oil-rich Arab holiday-makers and Egyptian girls as young as 14 years old continued.

Even the harshest critics of the former first lady, who argue that she approached the topic without going deep enough into its substance, insist that it was still better to have the state opposed to human trafficking, child marriages and FGM. A national campaign launched for these three causes has been abruptly suspended. Instead, members of the FJP, including a woman advisor to the president, have been caught in controversies over press statements supporting FGM.

An attempt to get rid of anti-FGM laws was conducted by some members of the dissolved parliament but eventually stopped thanks to Al-Azhar. “It was shocking to hear some calling for the elimination of this law but it was reassuring to have Al-Azhar step in with its moderate, tolerant and humanitarian interpretation of Islam,” Mekkawie says, “the one that Egypt had always embraced.”

Yet Mekkawie does not seem too confident that the call for eliminating the “firmly discriminatory language” will be heeded. Work against discrimination, she says, will continue anyway. Currently she is lobbying to secure a chapter-based referendum on the constitution.

“We should not be voting yes or no on the entire set of chapters; we should be allowed to vote yes for some and no for others if we so wish,” she says. Should this be the case, Mekkawie is hopeful that the chapters including discriminatory language against women would be dropped, especially if the appeal made by some to condition the approval of any constitutional material on the agreement of 75 per cent of the eligible voters is successful.

The Feminist Organisations Coalition paper supports the expectations of Mekkawie, with an opinion poll reflecting keenness among women of different socio-economic, political and religious affiliations to pursue more and not fewer rights and to come closer to equality with men.

“The main demands of the 25 January Revolution were liberty and equity; we should not lose sight of these goals,” Mekkawie argued. She added that if society is truly dedicated to building a modern state, “then we all have to agree that the role of women as well as men is desperately needed.”

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