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Egypt's women missing from formal politics

Women who are at the heart of a new and emerging Egypt are absent from formal politics

Hania Sholkamy , Sunday 22 Jan 2012

The remarkable revelation of the Egyptian revolution concerns women. It turns out that the women of Egypt are at the heart of our politics.

Since January 2011, a new wave of recognition for women’s political leadership and dynamism has swept the country. It began with female bloggers who inspired action through their words, and continued with hundreds of thousands of women from all over Egypt standing side by side with men in the streets and in Tahrir. Ladies also launched clashes between Copts and Muslims by their choices of lovers and religions. There are also the activists who have maintained a plethora of popular protest movements against military transgressions for the rights of the dead and injured and on behalf of unlawful detainment and torture in prisons.

The women's movement was reinvigorated when Samira Ibrahim won her case against military police and gained recognition for women’s bodily integrity when the court ruled that the virginity tests that she had endured at the hands of military police are unlawful.

Then, the whole world stopped and gasped at the image of a young woman dragged by two soldiers and kicked by a third. Violated and undressed, she launched a million protests and drew the attention of many to the events taking place in the heart of Cairo. Her image and the suffering of her comrades elicited an apology from the ruling military council to the ‘great women of Egypt’ and helped turn public opinion against the security clamp down against the protestors and their legitimate demands.

Meanwhile, women joined the long queues of voters waiting to have their say in Egypt’s first free elections in decades. Near 60% of all Egyptians entitled to vote did so and at least half of them if not more were women. The female vote has been instrumental in shaping the new parliament as evidenced by the winding queues outside female voting stations in most towns, cities and villages.

Yet women are near absent from this parliament. There are eight women who have succeeded in winning seats and two who have been appointed. That means that two per cent of parliament has gone to women. The world average for female representation in elected legislative bodies is 19 per cent and the Arab world average is 13 per cent.

Morocco has just had an election in which religious parties won a landslide victory and now has a parliament with 17 per cent women while our sister Tunis gave 28 per cent of seats to women candidates. Egypt is now in that tiny league of nations that includes Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands who have excised half of their population from formal political representative bodies.

The revelation then is that women are at the heart of a new and emerging Egypt but they are not seated at tables where laws are negotiated, where rights are formalized and where people are represented.

There are three lessons to be learned from this discord between the reality of women’s dynamic activism and leadership and their absence from formal politics.

The first concerns the lack of political awareness of women’s rights. There is a pervasive and naive misperception that women’s rights are the automatic outcome of free and fair political processes. The sad reality is that they are not; the hundreds of national struggles for liberation and democracy that promised justice to women as a natural outcome of success had to be pressured to deliver this justice.

The past decades of state sponsored feminism have harmed the popular perception of women’s rights even while delivering state sponsorship for some of these very same rights. The state imposed an unpopular quota for women and implemented it in the most discredited and corrupt elections in Egyptian history. The result has been anger at the very thought of positive discrimination in all its forms. But this problematic relationship between women’s rights and the Egyptian state need not cloud future processes that recognize women as equals. There is no way that rights and justice will ‘trickle down’ to women without conscious and planned efforts for inclusive justice and equality.

The second lesson is about fragmentation. The euphoria that came with freedom encouraged the proliferation of new parties, movements, initiatives, leagues and organizations. These nascent groupings decided to stay apart and make their individual and independent mark on politics. There are good reasons why people wanted to guard their individualism and demarcate separate territories for their work and principles; the very newness of freedom to associate is reason enough. But politics and parliaments are processes that award power to those who can consolidate their demands, who can benefit from bloc votes and who can throw their weight around in negotiation. Women’s groups and rights organizations failed to collate their participation in the elections. Had they done so, they could have made a dent in the politics of tomorrow.

The third lesson speaks to the vision of gender justice that exists in Egypt and the one that we need to create. There is some confusion about questions of rights and of justice. What is gender justice? Why do we have to convince people that it is a good thing? Can there possibly be wide support for injustice or inequality? If parties and their voters do not think it important to have a representative parliament then what are the mechanisms and institutions that people do believe in and which can promise future social justice? In other words, if few are worried about the outcomes of the elections then what are the indicators that would worry them?

The past year may not have delivered democracy, but it has enabled us to challenge autocracies. The vision for gender justice and women’s rights also needs to be challenged and re-imagined so as to capture people’s attention and passion and to develop meaningful initiatives and interventions that are attractive and convincing to the population at large.
The revolution is a process that continues. There is a place for women to fuel this process and to people its institutional expressions and outcomes. In fact, there is a necessity for doing so.

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