Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 December 2006 - 3 January 2007
Issue No. 826
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Slowly but surely

Amany Abdel-Moneim looks at Egyptian women; their gains achieved, and aspirations yet to be realised

Click to view caption
Textile factories are among the larger magnets of female workers

For Egyptian women, 2006 was a year of dubious accomplishment. Hectic bids for empowerment did not prevent two violent blows dealt to the cause; the one, exposed by bloggers, involved the large-scale harassment of women in downtown Cairo and several other urban centres during Eid Al-Fitr; the other, triggered by the mainstream press, concerned Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni's remark to the press on hijab being a sign of backwardness.

According to Vivian Foad Morqos, training officer at the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Free Village Model, an affiliate of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), the first incident is "a very upsetting indicator" that "civic society is giving way to a mob mentality fuelled by the disillusion of the young." Whether or not they wear hijab, she explained, women are reduced to sex objects on the street -- something which, outrageously for many, found a particularly disturbing expression on one of the Muslim calendar's holiest days. Rather more philosophically, as far as Morqos is concerned, the second incident, and especially the way in which the press turned the minister's statement into "an issue" overnight, "reflects a rift in society's understanding of the limits of freedom" which conflates politics, religion, individuals' personal choice and media hype.

For her part Nadia Halim, director of the women's programme at the National Research Centre and consultant to the National Council for Women (NCW), is scandalised: "what is happening is a farce. The minister has every right to express his own personal viewpoint, and should not have been so viciously attacked for it." For Azza Soliman, manager of the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA), differences should be accommodated, while social activist Mona Zulfiqar points to a misappropriation of religion on the part of political entities eager to advance a hidden agenda -- a notion Morqos takes further when she says, "the woman's humanity should not be turned into a mute trump card in the political game."

Zulfiqar identifies the standstill in women's legislative status as a case in point, underlining "the only exception" -- the introduction of DNA tests to prove paternity -- as a major step forward. Still, from the cultural viewpoint, Zulfiqar says, educational curricula and the media should reconsider their negative attitudes toward women. Morqos cites, as an instance, the fact that some of the local media ignored the opinion voiced by the influential Islamic scholar Youssef El-Qaradawi regarding FGM. She says that in the latest conference held by Dar Al-Efta', El-Qaradawi announced that female circumcision was "not an Islamic ritual" and that he advocates its prohibition. "Some of the media neglected this, and only focused on publishing the political aspects of the FGM issue." Morqos is of the view that the whole issue of FGM has become "a kind of political conflict over girls' bodies".

Soliman had an even more negative view, maintaining that with the general social regression incumbent on lack of democracy, women's status has positively deteriorated. She has called for, among other measures, a redrafting of the Personal Status Law giving equal rights to both Muslim and Coptic women. If not for NGOs like CEWLA, activists and feminists, the Coptic women's rights would never have been addressed in the first place; such parties have at least broken the pact of silence on taboo issues like rape and honour crimes. What about legal gains like the law entitling the child of a foreign man to its mother's Egyptian nationality? According to Soliman, the problem resides, rather, in whether and how jurisdiction is actually applied; in the case of Palestinians' children, for example, that law has been as good as notional.

Halim believes the current status of women is inextricably linked to poverty, towards which, she insists, the NCW, in collaboration with the Political Committee of the National Democratic Party, the Ministry of Social Solidarity and several NGOs, is using micro credit and other means of empowerment to make a difference at the grassroots level.

For Zulfiqar, the most significant female achievement in 2006 has been the presidential programme, which promises to ensure female political participation in the next few years. Worth mentioning in its context is that the NCW demands that women occupy a minimum of 10 per cent of the seats of parliament, a figure the National Council for Human Rights ups by double.

The need for greater participation is something MP Georgette Kellini, a legal consultant, readily concedes. Though both the constitution and other legislation safeguards it, female political participation is deplorably limited; though up to 38 per cent of electoral candidates were women, only nine MPs are actually female, and five of these made it to parliament by direct appointment. Arguably the result of patriarchal heritage, as Zulfiqar puts it, is an "unfair and unacceptable" situation. Female political representation in municipal councils is currently less than one per cent, while women's national representation in the People's Assembly stands at an approximate two per cent. The highest percentage of women's representation is in the Shura Council, standing at 5.7 per cent. Zulfiqar attributes these figures to the growing numbers of appointed women representatives. But in spite of this failure, as Kellini is eager to point out, 2006 brought about a significant improvement in the number of women occupying managerial and decision-making positions -- in the judiciary, education and the cabinet.

Judge Noha El-Zeini feels that "women are a national resource," and struggling for their rights remains integral to social development; the misconceptions and injustices of patriarchy are slowly but surely being eliminated. Such attitudes have no roots in the Constitution or in Islamic Law, but probably as a result of ingrained attitudes, Egypt now lags behind Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Syria, Morocco, Pakistan, Iran, Jordan, and Algeria, according to Arab League statistics.

"In fact," El-Zeini explains, "the current conflict between executive and judicial authority is negatively impacting women's status; the judges are opposed to direct appointment -- the way to increase female participation -- because it is also a way of imposing executive authority. Once the judges gain their independence, it will be far easier to bolster up representation."

El-Zeini believes that the role of women has been deteriorating because of the absence of democratic values. "Egyptians in general regard democracy with some suspicion," she says, adding that during the 50s and 60s, "there was a positive feminist role in the political arena. Something that we really miss these days."

Morqos says, "we are living in a male-oriented society, where men used to dominate and reject participation. It is due to purely cultural restraints, that female judges have encountered obstacles in their work." Morqos believes that the absence of women's role in the legal system has actually weakened it and impeded its effectiveness. "To have a woman judge is in the judiciary's interest, more so, than it is in that of women."

However, despite the fact that alleged cultural, or social factors could be at work against the employment of women as judges, the government's policies currently advocate women in the judiciary. This week, the Supreme Council for the Judiciary announced that it approves the principle of having women appointed as judges .

But El-Zeini thinks that it is not so much the cultural factor as the absence of democracy that leads to the exclusion of women.

Zulfiqar elaborates on this point: "the political power granted to female electoral candidates remains very limited. It does not enable them to compete effectively, reducing their participation to a token gesture, whether in elections or any institutional process. Political parties always cite women's rights as a priority on their agenda, but no such priority really exists."

However, El-Zeini does not invest much hope in female politicians advancing women's rights in the country. There are many token women in Egyptian politics. "They cannot be said to represent the women . "They represent the regime's interests".

The parliamentary elections of 2005 and the labourer election of 2006 followed by the student union election, according to El --Zeini, prove that the electoral fraud is the logical conclusion of a bitter legacy of authoritarianism and the absence of democracy. "It is the result of the domination of the executive power over the legislature and the judiciary." She added.

As most of the women interviewed in this piece agree, it is only through the more general battle for human rights that women's rights can be effectively sought and implemented.


* 34.18 million account for 48.83 per cent of the total population

* 49 per cent of those enrolled in universities are women

* In 2004 women made up 22.6 per cent of the total workforce

* In 2003, 57 per cent of females in employment were located in rural areas

* There is a decrease in female drop-out rates in primary education.

* Girl education opportunities in various education stages witnessed a noticeable increase.

* Women in top positions in various government sectors rose from a minimal seven per cent in 1988 to 23 per cent in 2000.

* Females account for 47 per cent of the tourism workforce, 44 per cent of the insurance and social affairs workforce, 40 per cent of the supply and foreign trade work force and 36 per cent of the health, religion, and information workforce

* In economic, employment and training and women's participation in all state's sectors have improved female workforce (15-64 years) increased from 917,000 in 1981 to 4.2 million in 2000, with an eight per cent annual growth rate.

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