Islamists add obstacles to gender equality, but no reason to panic: Women activists

Nada El-Kouny , Wednesday 7 Dec 2011

At a time when elections are expected to bring about an Islamic-dominated parliament, feminists remain optimistic about the future of the fight for women's rights

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Women taking part in protests against Mubarak during uprising outside Lawyer's Syndicate in Cairo, 27 January, 2011 (Photo: AFP)

With the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections drawing to a close, a significant Islamist presence is expected to dominate the political elite in Egypt’s upcoming transitional period.

Anticipation, fear and joy, meanwhile, along with alarm, are evident among different segments of the Egyptian public.

Some believe that this development will greatly hinder the position of women in society and the gains that have been experienced by the women’s movement.

Will women’s rights suffer a setback under an Islamist-led government?

“I’m not afraid of what I was not able to achieve,” lamented Lamya Lotfy of the Cairo-based New Women Foundation (NWF).

The women’s movement has, since the 1980’s especially, been fighting for certain laws, the most important of which have to do with the personal status laws; including divorce rights, custody rights, inheritance laws, and citizenship.

“We have had ambitions, goals and dreams that were not, and will not, easily be achieved,” added Lotfy.   

Dr. Magda Adly of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims also believes that what is important at the moment is to ensure that the small gains that have been made over the past years are protected first - like custody rights and divorce laws - and then see how to go on from there.  

Whether the upcoming parliament will really be more conservative or not, and what that will mean on ground, remains unclear, as Adly and Lotfy stated.

Lotfy believes that it is a natural progression that an Islamist-dominated government is to come about, based on the level of mass-based support and service-oriented methods that the Muslim Brotherhood has been practicing for years.

“Tomorrow will not be worse, it will only require more work from us, as the encounters with the more conservative current will be played out on the surface,” added Adly.

“The people have put them [the Freedom and Justice Party] up on stage and they are waiting and watching to see what they will get at. If their support base did not find them upholding the values and promises they made, they will not grant them that role again,” Lotfy eloquently expressed.  

Hala Kamal, Executive Director of the Women and Memory Forum, believes that we are being blind-sided from the more promising aspects.

“We are in fact, not looking at the facts on the ground,” she added. The fact that many of the electoral coalitions have placed women second and third on the lists, such as was the case with Sanaa Saeed from the Egyptian Bloc, who won in the southern governorate of Assiut, is very promising. 

Moreover, the FJP has in fact included more women than is legally stipulated, 10 per cent. This is indicative of the fact that they do believe these women are influential in society and that they will, in fact, ensure them votes.   

Lotfy similarly believes that the gains made by independent candidate Gameela Ismail in the Qasr al-Nil district are very significant, despite her not winning a seat.

“The fact that she is a divorced single-mother and a media woman - which is not usually a preferable occupation for women in our society - is all significant,” she added. 

It is important however to mention that candidates like Ismail and Amr Hamzawy were running in the largely middle and upper class neighborhoods of Zamalek and Heliopolis of Cairo. This will not necessarily be the same case in other governorates of Egypt.

Is there an Egyptian women’s movement?

In all revolutionary conditions, women’s demands become part of the national movement, as was the case in Egypt in 1919 and 1952. The same seems to be the case today, as Kamal suggests.

“Our demands had to do with our political rights as citizens,” she clarified when talking about the call for political and civil rights.

Additionally, women’s role in the public sphere did not start on January 25 and will not end with a stabilisation of the political scene; as with the elections.

Nevine Ebeid from the NWF stated that the parties involved in the drafting of the shadow constitutional document by a group of women’s rights organisations in April, were thinking on a larger scale of the rights that would ensure a civil state built on freedoms and ensuring a democratic process is followed through with.

The same applies to other groups such as the Copts, added Kamal.

The Coalition of Egyptian Feminist Organisations was one of the main groups that was spurred by the deposition of Mubarak in February, and have been spearheading such initiatives as the drafting of a shadow constitution.

 “For women to achieve certain gains, we have to ensure that the ground is ripe for those freedoms to be achieved,” Ebeid clarified, as she added that the overarching goal is achieving the “rule of law.”

However, the trap that we cannot fall in and the fear that several activists have, revolves around the discourse that once the issues of society at large are solved, they will inherently result in the improvement of women’s situation.

We have to be careful of not falling into this decoy because we are more specifically fighting a “system of obsolete traditions”, stated Adly.

This is in effect means that we could be improving the level of women’s participation in parliament, but the practice of female genital mutilation is still practiced on a magnifying level of approximately 95 per cent, clarified Adly.  

Women are in Tahrir, not in Parliament

“As much as seats will be taken over by the FJP and the Salafists, as much as we are to expect a movement organising to challenge and pressure that trend”, Ebeid stressed.

While women’s official representation in parliament may be a timely topic, it is not however the most important point to address at this moment.

“We never dreamed of seeing this amount of women’s participation in the public sphere and the fact that there now are a burgeoning number of independent labor unions - including the women’s agricultural union - is what is most promising, clarified Lotfy.  

Similarly significant, is Mona Mina, a member of the Doctors without Rights campaign, who won a seat on the Egypt’s Doctors Syndicate board in late October, despite being a Coptic woman.

The questions raised over women’s official representation in parliament was very evident during the Mubarak era, with Suzanne Mubarak and the National Council of Women (NCW), the body headed by her, pinned as the face of the women’s movement in Egypt.

The Personal Status laws were issued under Mubarak’s rule and were dubbed “Suzanne’s Laws”. They had to do with; khul laws (women’s right to divorce, Law 1/2000), women’s alimony rights (Law 100/1985), custody rights for children until the age of fifteen (Law 4/2005), and a law on visitation rights for divorcees.

The Childhood Law was also amended, stipulated by Article 31 which increased the age of marriage to 18. 

Additionally, a quota system of 30 seats for women in parliament was introduced.

While the Egyptian legal system is in large part a secular one, personal status laws only are based on Islamic sharia (jurisprudence) readings. While coming into effect under the Mubarak era, they were not necessarily a result of the efforts of the NCW, but rather a result of years of work, starting from the 1920s.

Additionally, the adoption of women’s rights by Suzanne Mubarak was to a large part a public relations campaign for a foreign audience, in addition to  only benefiting a certain class of women while neglecting the majority of women from the lower socio-economic classes.

Even though there was a physical presence of women in parliament, they were nevertheless to a large extent puppets and were appointed by the ruling National Democratic Party, clarified Kamal.

Many of the independent women’s rights organisations during the Mubarak era did not recognise the council as representing them. They saw the council as part of a despotic regime, being headed by the former first lady.

As a result, after the deposition of former president, Hosni Mubarak, they called for the dissolution of the council, while clarifying the gains made in the movement were not a result of Mrs. Mubarak’s efforts.

The threat was most evident when there was a counter movement in April to call for the repeal of the personal status laws, due to the misunderstanding of being “Suzanne’s Laws”. Activists were further threatened when not one woman was appointed to the constitutional amendments committee, appointed by the SCAF and headed by Tarek El-Bishry.

Amna Nosseir, Professor of Religion and Islamic Philosophy at Azhar University and member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, clarifies that the “correct interpretation” of sharia laws, does in fact protect women. Yet, she believes that the upcoming parliament will not guarantee that, due to being an extremely conservative one. “It will put us in a position of extreme regression,” she added.

She also stated that those who will be in power in the upcoming parliament lack intellect and have a false understanding of Islamic teachings. As a result, the gains that women have made over the years, in addition to the laws that have protected them, will be greatly threatened.  

Mozn Hassan from Nazra Association for Feminist Studies added that “we have to know that the higher number of women in parliament before, which was supported by the dictatorship, did not help the cause and excluded women's issues.”

Ebeid added that while women may not be in parliament, they are in Tahrir. During the 18 days of the revolution, a distinction could not be made in numbers and in effect between women's and men's presence.

More recently also, in the last occupation of Tahrir starting November 19, women were very evident, bravely fighting on the frontlines of the Mohamed Mahmoud street battles, throwing rocks at the security forces. 

“Tahrir will not dwindle out anytime soon; it is there, geographically and mentally,” Ebeid argued.   

The majority of women’s rights organisations have learnt to reassess their programs and their approaches. For a large part, they were inhibited by their organisational structure as a non-governmental organisation or a research-based organisation, from truly having the effect they were aiming for.

“After the January 25 Revolution, we tried to focus on becoming more mass-based, which we were limited from being before,” clarified Ebeid, as the NWF launched a political participation campaign.

Nazra also worked on helping women’s political participation through a ‘political participation academy’. “We aimed to support women to gain seats in the political sphere not only in parliament but in local councils, syndicates, and labour movements by mentoring them and supporting them. This academy supported Sanaa Saeed who won on the proportional list of Egyptian bloc in Assiut,” clarified Hassan. 

The mass movement(s) over the last couple of months has made people very vocal, and women have been central to that.

“The challenge for us now is to really start to listen and learn from what these women really want, whether we agree with their opinion or not, instead of, for example, being directed by our struggle for ensuring personal status laws, that may not be called for in the first place” Lotfy stated.

Ebeid warns, “we are not to regret the revolution… we have to pay the price, as we cannot trade with the fact that democracy has brought about a current that many of us may not agree with.”

Kamal added, “the revolution has led us to a stage where we can stop lamenting the exclusion of women in Egyptian society.”

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