Three years have passed since the 2011 “Tahrir” Revolution in Egypt. In that occasion we saw the Egyptian women side by side with men calling for democracy and freedom, and the world had the impression that – along with a new season for political rights and democratization for all Egyptians - also a new era for women rights had began in Egypt.
As we all know, democracy and freedom have not been an easy goal to achieve for the Egyptian people in these three years. And what about women rights? We asked Naiera Ellethy, a political activist and one of organizer of the Women Rights Association “Ikhtyar” (Choice), to tell us her experience and what has changed for the Egyptian women after 2011.
Three years have passed since the Egyptian upheaval that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. What has changed in the Egyptian society regarding women rights? Was it worth?
We can tackle this question on two levels: the legal framework and the real practices. For instance, talking about the legal framework, we can look at the 2014 amended Egyptian Constitution: for the first time , the Constitution stipulates that the State is committed to women holding public and senior management state offices and their appointment in judicial bodies and authorities without discrimination. For the first time, too, the State commits to protect women from all forms of violence (article 11). Article 180 sets a quarter of seats in the local council for women for the first time ever. Article 93 stipulates the State’s commitment to International Conventions which is instrumental for women’s rights in view of Egypt’s ratification of CEDAW, and will help leveraging the constitutional premise for the State’s observance of women’s rights. Secondly, in 2012 the dissolved People’s Assembly issued law no 23 which is about providing health insurance for Bread winners “The women responsible for providing their families alone“. Finally, In March 2011, SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) issued a decree law no 11 that enforced the punishment for sexual harassment and rape against women and children .
The ones we analyzed until now are the positive legal innovations. Let’s see now the negative aspects:
In the 2014 amended Egyptian Constitution we still have article 2 which indicates that the principles of Islamic Shariaa are the main source of legislation. It depends on how liberal or conservative the majority of the parliament will be in interpreting those principles. In addition, article 3 made Christians and Jews marriage relations completely depending to their religious institutions. Such a decision closed the door “at least for a while “ on the idea of civil divorce for Christians – which has been discussed since 2006 – and gave the church full authority on it .
Let’s talk now about the involvement of women in the institutions. The number of women in the 3 Constituent committees that were formed whether during Morsy presidency or after his oust is relatively small. In the first committee that was dissolved we had 6 women out of 100 members, in the second committee that drafted 2012 Constitution we had 7 women out of 100 . After Morsy oust, a new 50 members committee was formed to amend the 2012 Constitution where we find only 5 women out of 50 members.
Furthermore, in 2011 parliamentary elections the quota of reserved seats for women was completely removed and the result was that we had only 11 women in the dissolved parliament; 9 were elected and 2 were appointed by SCAF. In addition, despite the fact that the Parliament elections law is not issued yet, many indicators show that it is not going to be women friendly especially if the majoritarian system is the one that will implemented in the coming parliamentary elections.
Let’s come now to the social practices. The relations between women and Egyptian society are complex and this complexity derives from that of the Egyptian political and economic situation which usually influences the women conditions, often transforming into an obstacle for their improvement. Not surprisingly, talking about social and political improvements for women we always listen to the usual phrase “it is not the time “.
Nevertheless, I would like to analyse the topic using the idea of spaces. There have been interesting changes in the presence of women in the public spheres along the last three years. How are women getting or losing spaces – on the media, in the institutions or in the streets – depending on the top ruler in Egyptian politics? Let’s see a quick review:
Scene 1, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in power: we saw women going in and out Tahrir square, mob sexual assault for foreign correspondent Feb 11th , girls in confrontations with the ministry of interior soldiers and girls in field hospitals. Furthermore, the blue bra girl beaten by army soldier, virginity tests scandal, very few young women presence in revolutionary coalitions and political parties and massive presence in demonstrations. 11 women got elected in the parliament out of 510 members.
Scene 2 , Morsy in power: we saw an unprecedented level of “reports” of sexual assaults in Tahrir square and an increasing number of anti-sexual harassment groups. An Egyptian delegation went to New York for the 57th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women talking about a coalition including countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and asking that the UN respects religious and cultural singularities.
Scene 3, Morsy Oust till Rabaa sit disperse: we saw massive presence of women in demonstrations against Morsy and media focusing heavily on it. Massive presence of women in Rabaa sit in, and one old Nasserist Muslim woman on tv when the road map was announced on July 3rd 2013. Furthermore, the new government included 4 women and general Sisi asked Egyptian people, especially women, for authorization to fight terrorism.
Scene 4 , After the Rabaa sit in dispersed: we saw pictures of dead bodies and women crying after the disperse, demonstrations every week where women were usually in the front line, violent photos for MB (Muslim Brotherhood) girls at universities attacking buildings and professors, and famous female activists arrested after the demonstrations law was issued. Furthermore, testimonies on sexual harassment, virginity tests that female detainees have been subjected to, Sisi asking women to vote on the new referendum, media focusing on old women dancing “Cairo” in the streets celebrating the referendum – which is quiet strange for Egyptian conservative society and which was not the case in upper Egypt where streets looked like in a funeral.
Egypt has been declared the worst Arab country regarding women’s condition. In your opinion, is that a fair definition?
I have not studied women conditions in all the Arab Countries, but definitely we all have deeply rooted patriarchy that is ruling the political and economic context, honour crimes are as here as in Lebanon , Female Genital Mutilation is as here as in Sudan, early marriage is here and in Yemen. I cannot deny that we are having a lot of issues; FGM, early marriage, sexual harassment, security issue, health care, low wages, high level of domestic violence that cannot be traced due to lack of statistics. In addition to a political chaotic context and a very weak legislative context in favour of women that was started only in the 60s. It must be said that the politicization of women was used by both secular and religious forces as a propaganda means. Furthermore, the feminist movement is still weak due to political polarization, generation gap and lack of trust between the single feminist movements. Certainly such a situation makes women’s life very difficult. Nevertheless, women are surviving; 35% of Egyptian families are completely supported by women, we see women now in the workers strikes just like we saw them on the Parliament pavement since 2005 and the demand for changing those conditions will never be buried as women face them everyday.
I would also like to add one more thing about the women conditions in Arab countries: that despite the fact that some countries could get better drafted laws in favour of women that totally prohibits discrimination (Tunisia for example), in practice we are all still having similar issues due to the weakness of the social movements that are responsible for pushing those written words into reality. Strong networking between women rights groups inside one country and across all the Arab countries is of great importance especially if it rises the women issue as priority. Since most of the time it gets lost among the other issues that Arab countries are facing.
Tell us about your personal experience as young politically active woman along the last three years. What have been the worst and the best moments?
This is a very difficult question to be answered. What Egypt has passed through in the last three years is horrible and outstanding at the same time. The Egyptian State and society were getting revealed, layer by layer. It was important since in this way many people, at least, now understand where the diseases are. The best moments were on Jan 28th: I still remember my dad locking the door when I wanted to join the first ever demonstration in our neighbourhood; he joined me later in Tahrir square on Feb 11th. Worst moments are certainly the ones that included violence but at least, now I know they are the ones I don’t want to witness again.
What are the aims of the association you founded and, so far, what are the results that you have achieved?
Ikhtiyar -“Choice“- was the idea of two friends of mine, a research association specialised in gender and women studies. Our main objective was to provide knowledge about women issues in Arabic due to shortage of Arabic resources in that field. Furthermore, we want to provide a space where Arabs can write and talk about themselves and these issues. We have finished our first gender school with a group of tremendous Egyptian and Foreign scholars; 12 sessions every week where the participants meet with 12 scholars specialised in gender, sociology, women rights, and sexuality and currently we are preparing for our first magazine where the participants are asked at the end of the school to write a paper on a relevant topic that they choose. In addition we are now building our library so that Ikhtyar becomes a helpful place to read books for free.
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