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Women debate rights on Woman's DayBy Mariz Tadros
This year's celebration of Woman's Day was anything but quiet because Egypt's reservations on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women came up for a heated debate
Next December, the world will be celebrating 20 years since the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was signed. This was all the more reason, thought the Gender and Development Donor Group, to make it the topic of debate at this year's International Woman's Day celebration. The Group were the organisers of the event that was held at the Al- Hanager Theatre at the Opera House on Monday.
Toni Wagner, Chairperson of the Donor Assistance Group in Egypt, reminded participants that 70 percent of women are poor, and that they continue to face discrimination in both their public and private lives. She affirmed the necessity of having a social development strategy that is gender-sensitive and pointed out that "if development is not engendered, it is endangered."
Mervat Tallawi, Minister of Social Affairs and Insurance, underlined the comprehensive nature of CEDAW, pointing out that Egypt had worked hard for six years with other states in preparing it. "The Convention covers two areas: women's rights as human rights and the role of women in social development," she said, adding that Egypt had signed the Convention but made one or two reservations. "The problem, however, is the implementation of CEDAW, which is hindered by social traditions and lack of awareness," she said. Documentation and evaluation of work in the area of women's rights is necessary, she added, suggesting that perhaps in the coming few years it would be possible to assess "whether we succeeded or not and how we can improve on what we did." Tallawi pointed out that the ministry is involved with UNICEF in a campaign to reach out to women and help them obtain identity cards. "One of our goals is to ensure that all women have ID cards within a year," she said.
Fathi Naguib, assistant to the minister of justice, said that Egypt signed the CEDAW in 1981, but made four reservations. These reservations, he asserted, do not touch on the essence of the Convention and do not make it any less binding on Egypt.
The government had a reservation concerning clause 2, which stipulates that women and men should have equal rights under the law in all areas. The reservation was made because of the nationality issue. Under Egyptian law, the children of a mother married to a non-Egyptian are not entitled to citizenship, but the children of men married to non-Egyptian women are. There was also a reservation concerning clause 16, which stipulates that women and men should have equal rights in marriage and divorce. There were also reservations on clauses 9 and 6 but the government's view was that they can be implemented as long as they do not run in conflict with Islamic Sharia(law). However, Islamic Sharia, he pointed out, guarantees women all their rights, but any confusion is due to the fact that no distinction is made between the sources of Sharia,such as the Quran, which is sacred, and Islamic fiqh(jurisprudence), which is not.
Naguib also asserted that there is still room for ijtehad,the right to re-interpret sacred texts, which means that there are still possibilities for change. Through ijtehad, he said, "we can narrow the existing gap." With respect to divorce rights, he pointed out that it is true that the husband has the right to divorce his wife on the spot while the woman has to do it through courts-of-law, but there is a way out for women: "she can divorce him through khol'a,or the renunciation of her rights, such as alimony.
Tallawi responded that she does "not see any good reason why Egypt should have objected to Clause 2 of CEDAW. We have done Islamic Sharia an injustice; our legal system gives us less than what we are entitled to under the Sharia. According to the Sharia, a wife does not have to go to court to divorce her husband; she just returns to him her dowery."
Naguib argued that the reservation against Clause 2 is somewhat strange because women's equality to men is guaranteed under the Egyptian Constitution. He suggested that it is, perhaps, a cultural, rather than a legislative issue.
According to Naguib, Egyptian legislation is heading in the direction of recognising women's rights. Under a new personal status bill, a woman who wants to divorce her husband can do so without mentioning any reasons in court, but must give up her rights, such as alimony. The current law denies women this privilege and they have to spend years battling in court before they obtain a divorce. There was fierce opposition from the floor to the principle of khol'a, with many women arguing that it could potentially do more harm than good. In essence, they said, it makes divorce a question of buying and selling, forcing women to buy out their freedom. Moreover, they added, there is no reason for women to give up their financial rights when they have been doing unpaid housework for years on end throughout their marriage. It was also pointed out that this principle would give men the opportunity to blackmail women: they either pay a certain amount of money or the divorce is not forthcoming. Others asserted that it is discriminatory against the bulk of poor women who simply cannot afford to make that deal.
Naguib attempted to defend the principle of khol'a on the grounds that a man is burdened by financial obligations which he must meet in order to get married and, therefore, if the wife chooses to leave the marriage, it is only fair that what was originally his be restored to him. Critics responded that women also are burdened by financial expenses when getting married.
Azza Suleiman of the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Aid said that NGOs should lobby the government to implement the clauses it had signed and incorporate them into the legislative order. She pointed out that under CEDAW, for example, women have the right to travel and move freely-- a clause against which Egypt had no reservations but is denied by the current legislative system. Under Egyptian law, women have to get a written permission from their husbands in order to leave the country. She also pointed out that until now, the state has not given a convincing reason for denying citizenship to the children of women married to non-Egyptians.
The event was also attended by famous actress Youssra, who spoke on how the cinema can advance women's cause and promote women's equal rights. A critic responded by asking how can the cinema enhance women's image when it portrays them either as weak and submissive or as seductresses. Youssra smiled and said that "sometimes a woman's weakness can be a source of strength."