Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
29 March - 4 April 2001
Issue No.527
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Getting tougher on women's rights

The National Council for Women says it is getting tough on illiteracy and the personal status law. Reem Leila digs into the NCW's five-year plan

Farkhonda Hassan Farkhonda Hassan
Having taken the helm at the National Council for Women (NCW), newly anointed Secretary-General Farkhonda Hassan laid out the top issues the NCW would be taking on at a press conference on Sunday. The council, headed by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, takes as its mission the pursuit of bettering the lives of Egyptian women -- giving women a voice amid the clamour of debate over controversial issues like the personal status law and political reform.

Hassan, who succeeds former Secretary-General Mervat Tellawy, already has a considerably formidable voice of her own. Named the women's secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), Hassan left the post in order to devote herself to the NCW. A professor of geology, she is a familiar TV personality as well as an accomplished politician. Elected to parliament in 1979, she has served three terms on the Shura Council. She is also an honorary life member of the International Parliamentary Union -- the first woman from the Third World to hold such a position.

The NCW has spread its goals across the spectrum of women's issues with its ambitious five-year plan, from naming a "women's year" that will run from March to the following February, to the long-standing demand that children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers be entitled to Egyptian nationality. Currently, a child is only an Egyptian national if his father has the nationality. Equally controversial is the legal requirement that women receive the permission of their husbands to travel or be issued a passport. "According to the constitution, women are equal to men," says Hassan. "They should be able to exercise their right to freedom of mobility."

But topping the NCW's list of priorities is combating illiteracy, a sore point with women's groups, who claim current efforts are weak and ineffectual. A damaging international development report recently ranked Egypt painfully low among countries on the issue of illiteracy. Out of 174 countries, Egypt came in at 119. Saying that improving literacy among women is key to improving women's political awareness -- and, hence, their status in society -- Hassan said that the council will be working in cooperation with the National Executive Agency for Eliminating Illiteracy.

On the issue of political participation, the NCW recognises the need to boost women's representation in parliament. The NCW has backed a motion presented in the Shura Council to return to the slate-system in parliamentary elections. The system, in which people vote for a party list as a whole -- not individually -- was abandoned when it was deemed unconstitutional. The NCW sees a return to the old slate-system as potentially beneficial to women, as women candidates among a list of many others would no longer be considered the "risk" they were when they ran individually, and their respective parties would name more on the list. The proposal is being considered by the committee of constitutional affairs. Hassan is optimistic, saying that the fact that the committee is studying the proposal is a "good sign" -- if approved, she says, it will be difficult to remove again.

Also on the agenda for the NCW is turning the government's attention to the significant percentage of households headed by women, estimated at somewhere between 16 to 22 per cent. Mrs Suzanne Mubarak has said that the needs of these women need to be more thoroughly addressed, and several governors have begun donating buildings as housing. Hassan explained that the NCW is raising money to fund projects to develop a source of income for women heads of households.

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