The vanishing dream of women's rights in Egypt

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Asia & Emerging Economies

Picture of Moushira Khattab
Moushira Khattab

Not just because they are so many, but also because they are often the breadwinners for entire families, Egypt’s women matter; the referendum on Egypt’s new constitution exemplified this, for Egyptian women queued to vote in huge numbers in January of this year, and so became the talk of Cairo.

The stakes have been high every time Egyptians have gone to the polls since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, but this was the first time that Egyptians were voting to ensure that there would be no return to dictatorship, whether under the guise of emergency law, or that of a democratically-elected Islamist President. At stake there was more than legitimising the overthrow of a democratically elected president, for the referendum also closed the door on the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims to legitimacy. It represented a vote of confidence in the political road-map put forward by the country’s defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the man who, in many people’s eyes, has saved Egypt from a downward spiral of political conflict, but who has also made it clear that public support is a pre-condition to his presidential candidacy. Meanwhile, analysts have been using the high turnout for January’s referendum to point to widespread public support for General el-Sisi, with female voter turnout being seen as of critical importance.

Analysts have been using the high turnout for January’s referendum to point to widespread public support for General el-Sisi, with female voter turnout being seen as of critical importance

Watching ‘The Square’, Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated film documenting the dramatic events of January 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, it was impressive to see how women played such an active part in the revolution that toppled Mubarak. Women were indisputably an integral part of the 2011 and 2013 demonstrations that led to the ousting of both Mubarak and Morsi, and the women who cast their votes in January had come a long way since 2011. Although they may not have read the draft constitution in its entirety and will never agree on every article in it, they seem aware that rather than contest specific clauses, they must accept or reject the constitution as a whole.

The key point is that the same women who shouted “No to the military” and supported the Islamists as a legitimate national faction are now leading the pressure on General el-Sisi to run for President. They had at one point seen their status downgraded from equal partners in the revolution to being used by Islamists as a distraction. De-criminalising female genital mutilation and reducing the minimum age of marriage for girls eclipsed fighting corruption or restoring social justice.

The size of voter turnout on the draft constitution became more important than the percentage of approval which was reported to exceed 98.1%. The turnout of 20m voters was roughly 38% of the electorate, higher than the 32% recorded in 2012, but still below the aspirations of non-Islamists. It became more important to identify those who had abstained than those who voted, and the boycott by the many Islamists came as little or no surprise, even if the high population of young males was an unwelcome one. As it was, without the women who turned out to vote in such numbers, the situation would have been very different. It is no exaggeration to say that the face of Egypt’s civil society owes its new lease on life to the country’s women.

Without the women who turned out to vote in such numbers, the situation would have been very different. It is no exaggeration to say that the face of Egypt’s civil society owes its new lease on life to the country’s women

Women were undeterred by terrorist threats and patiently queued to vote for hours. Their commitment wasn’t so much about voting for a constitution as about giving their seal of approval to the expulsion of the Muslim Brotherhood. The constitution is nevertheless a step forward for Egyptians, even if it still falls short of meeting many of their demands. Its Article 93 commits the state to the international Convention on Human Rights, which once ratified will carry the same powers as domestic legislation. It means that the 2014 constitution will be judged on whether it meets international human rights standards by removing conspicuous references to a theocracy, by using clearer language on rights and freedoms that aid the struggle for gender equality and by criminalising discrimination.

Compared to Egypt’s 1971 constitution, the most significant loss for women is their parliamentary quota of 64 seats in the lower house. The self-proclaimed liberals who constituted the majority of those writing the constitution objected to granting women “fair or just” rather than “appropriate” representation in elected councils with 25% at the local level. Cultural stereotypes mean there is no guarantee that at the polls this will translate positively for women.

Egyptian women will benefit from newly-improved provisions on political, civil, economic and social rights. But cultural rights that were absent from both the 1971 and 2012 constitutions are still missing. The 2014 text introduces a very brief sub-section on “cultural foundations of the state” which deals mainly with Egyptian cultural identity. This is usually a term that refers to the tolerant and secular Egypt that has been embattled since the 1980s by the rigid Wahabi islamist culture that seeks by stealth to oppress women. Its addition is a step in the right direction, but needs elaboration and to be consolidated as a right.

In mid-2011, the women’s parliamentary quota was abolished. Egypt’s women constitute a formidable bloc of 17m possible votes, yet no candidate for the parliamentary or presidential elections has lobbied for their votes

Although women’s political activism began over a century earlier, when women took to the streets in January 2011 they were still demanding their freedom, and were hailed as heroes. But they were also harassed for calling for women’s rights. In mid-2011, the women’s parliamentary quota was abolished. It went without a public vote or even much debate. Egypt’s women constitute a formidable bloc of 17m possible votes, yet no candidate for the parliamentary or presidential elections has lobbied for their votes, leaving them marginalised in the nation-building process.

Egypt’s many constitutions have included some good provisions. They were, however, selectively implemented, with chapters on rights and freedoms mostly left dormant. The constitution still refers to many rights to be regulated by the law, thus becoming hostage to those who will write those laws. The beginning of 2014 saw the adoption of the constitution, and within a week the president of the national Council of Women was officially charged by the Council of State, the country’s judiciary, with insulting the judiciary. She had written a letter to the Council asking whether it intended to implement the part of the constitution which grants women equal rights to posts in the judiciary.

[El-Sisi] places a heavy emphasis on the role of women in the next chapter of Egypt’s great history

To close on an upbeat note, it’s worth mentioning the video clip widely disseminated on social media of a conservative, veiled Egyptian woman dancing publicly, shortly after casting her vote. Her happiness was heartfelt, sincere and unmistakeable. This woman was just one of the 17m others who had voted for a society that once again is set to leave women’s rights behind. Or will it be different this time?

The stage is now set for Egypt’s next Presidential election in two weeks’ time. The lights are ready, the camera is in place, and the world turns its eyes once again to Egyptian women, as the Field Marshal favourited to win places a heavy emphasis on their role in the next chapter of Egypt’s great history. The respect and admiration with which he discusses his wife during television interviews is refreshing to say the least, and meetings with women leaders were among el-Sisi’s first after announcing his candidacy for President. This rhetoric invites hope for the future of Egyptian politics and the rights of women going forward.

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