Breaking Taboos: Egypt’s Women
The most important achievement of Egyptian women over the past year is their emergence as a formidable and active voting block of 23 million voters. They diligently queued for hours in the scorching heat of the summer and the cold winter just to be able to have their say and make their voices heard.
Women have also been very vocal about their views. The sheer number of women from diverse backgrounds who demonstrated last year put their political activism on an equal footing with men. Moreover, women broke many taboos by camping out in the streets alongside men, challenging traditional expectations of their behavior.
More importantly, women reported sexual harassment and took effective measures to monitor and punish perpetrators. And they demanded that the government take responsibility for this issue. Egyptian women, who have always known and valued their self-worth, succeeded in making their power visible to others.
A considerable number of women still, however, vote according to the wishes of the men in their lives. This explains women’s inability to yet translate their voting numbers into a unified political force that serves their rights and best interests. Some women are still against the concept of equal rights for women. It is hard to visualize other social or economic achievements for Egyptians over the past year and women are no exception.
The pivotal role played by Egyptian women in the making of the January 2011 revolution has turned against them. Women’s rights are now a divisive issue. Women were excluded from the post-revolution nation building process— including the drafting of the constitution.
The post-revolution constitution provides for equal rights without discrimination. It does not, however, explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender —a core tenet of all Egyptian constitutions since 1923. The constitution also removed references to international human rights conventions ratified by Egypt. This may have removed their higher status in case of conflict with Egyptian legislation.
The constitution also does not specifically mention women’s rights. The only reference to women as a specific group falls under the family, acknowledging only their domestic role. The constitution gives religion a stronger, yet vague role over legislation and allows for subjectivity. It abolished the parliamentary quota for women. Their political participation has declined both in the parliament to less than two percent and in the cabinet by half. Demonization of women as a sex object has intensified since the revolution. Sexual harassment has escalated to terrifying levels. This may be part of an attempt to push women back into their exclusively domestic role.
The government has done little so far to ensure that women retain their rights. The constitution calls for a battalion of laws to make its provisions operable. Such laws can make it or break it for women. The newly adopted election law does not recognize affirmative action for women. If their marginal representation continues, women will have a difficult time trying to influence such laws.
Moushira Khattab was a Public Policy Scholar in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in 2012. She is the former Minister of Family and Population of Egypt as well as Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Moushira served as Ambassador of Egypt to South Africa during the Nelson Mandela era and Ambassador of Egypt to the Czech Republic and Slovakia during their formation.
Click here to read her paper, “Women’s Rights Under Egypt’s Constitutional Disarray.”