Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2011
Issue No. 1073
Election 2011
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On their own

Unlike the last parliament which reserved 64 seats for women, the quota has been scrapped for the upcoming parliamentary elections, Reem Leila reports

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Unlike the last parliament, the percentage of women at the forthcoming elections will not exceed five per cent

For several years, women's representation in parliament has been roiled in controversy. Ever since women won the right of political participation in 1956, their representation in elected parliaments has differed, but was usually marginal, varying between 0.5 and 2.4 per cent. In 1979, Egypt first applied a 30-seat quota for female candidates but revoked it in 1988 after its constitutionality was challenged. At that time women took a relatively high percentage of parliamentary seats. During the People's Assembly (PA) session of 1979-1984 women occupied nine per cent of the PA, and 8.3 per cent from 1984-1987.

In order to increase women's participation in political life in general and the PA in particular a new quota system for women's representation was introduced during the 2010 PA elections. A total of 64 seats were allocated only for women. The new quota system was to be applied for two successive legislative terms, or 10 years, but some, especially feminists, argued the period was not long enough to change the deeply- rooted conservative ideas about women's classic roles in society.

The feminists should have counted their blessings. Although the introduction of the women's quota was hugely significant, it has been scrapped in the new electoral laws. After the 25 January Revolution many called for the annulment of the quota system claiming it was unconstitutional. To many, the quota system is not necessarily a female-friendly institution. Due to engrained sexism and political pessimism in Egypt, it was argued that it may end up creating a worse situation for female candidates than their earlier situation.

"The quota doesn't get to the root of the problem -- that the culture in the Egypt of today is not supportive of active women's participation," said Azza Suleiman, a lawyer and a feminist who ran for the 2010 parliamentary elections as an independent according to the quota system and lost.

"The quota system is unconstitutional; it is a kind of racial discrimination which is criminalised by the law. The quota was introduced to parliamentary life just to please Suzanne Mubarak (wife of the former president) who at the time wanted to be seen as a strong advocate of women and their political, legal, and social rights," added Suleiman.

Manal Abul-Hassan, a professor of mass media at Al-Azhar University and an associate of the Muslim Brotherhood, ran in the 2010 parliamentary elections as an independent and lost. This year Abul-Hassan is running with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), belonging to the MB. Abul- Hassan believes last year's quota system was a way for the regime to curry favour with Egypt's liberal, secular elite and the international community without changing conservative attitudes on the ground or relinquishing any political control. "All women who won seats were National Democratic Party [NDP] candidates," said Abul-Hassan. The NDP, the ruling party for decades, was dismantled shortly following the revolution.

Farkhonda Hassan, secretary-general of the National Council for Women (NCW), describes the low representation of women in the upcoming parliamentary elections as "a dozen steps back". However, Hassan believes that women themselves are refraining from running in the elections because the country remains unstable following the uprising which toppled the regime. As such, she fears that women might lose the gains they made during the past 10 years. "If Islamists come to power, I expect that they will strip women of the achievements they made throughout the previous years," Hassan said. At the same time, "many people, not only women, do not want to play any role in the country's political life, at least for the time being. They will do so but a few years down the road, when matters are more stable and clearer."

"I believe that women's representation in the next parliament will not exceed three per cent, a severe deterioration in their status," Hassan said.

In an analysis of the 2011 parliamentary electoral system, a report issued by the International Foundation for Electoral System (IFES) says that in the current election law each Proportional Registration (PR) list must include one female candidate, but does not oblige a party to put a woman in winnable positions on the list.

The IFES report says that if each of the political parties were to put one female candidate in second place on their list, it is likely that such a candidate would secure a small but significant portion of seats. However, if larger parties positioned a female nominee third on the list, instead of second, then the number of females who win will drastically decrease. It remains to be seen how female candidates will fair in Individual Candidate (IC) seats. In the 2010 parliamentary elections female candidates who were running for IC seats did poorly.

Among the candidates running with the Democratic Alliance are 80 women, 76 of whom belong to the Freedom and Justice Party which is among Democratic Alliance members. Member parties of the Democratic Alliance total 10, including the FJP, Karama, Ghad, Al-Ahrar, Reform and Development, Civilisation, Social Peace, Geel, Arab Socialist Egypt and Labour.

Almost half of the women candidates who belong to the FJP were positioned in the top half, while the other half were placed on the bottom of the party list. For example, Manal Mohamed Abul-Hassan (professional) was placed fifth on the FJP list in the Cairo constituency, and Nagafa Abdel-Mawla (labourers) is sixth on the list for the same constituency. Wafaa Mustafa Mashhour, daughter of the sixth leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is on top of the FJP list for the Assiut constituency while Maha Abul-Ezz is second on the list. Women also came out on top in Alexandria, where the FJP placed its female candidate third.

The Reform and Development Party includes only one woman who came seventh on the list. The Free Egypt Party has placed its only female candidate last. Hoda Mohamed is also at the bottom of the Nasserist Party list. The Ghad Party list has one woman, Enaam Mohamed Ali, at No 6. Sahar Othman is first on the list of the Conservative Party for the first constituency of Sharqiya governorate. The Tagammu Party has 10 women candidates, whereas the Salafist Nour Party has 15 women. Ten women are on the Wafd Party list.

Mohamed Hamed, secretary-general of the FJPs Cairo branch, said the FJP believes in the important role a woman can play within society and political life as well. "The party aimed to field at least 25 to 30 women from the FJP at the top of the list in order to guarantee victory and defeat claims accusing us of being against granting women their rights whether political, legal or social. Putting women on top of many of our lists will help change people's views about the MB regarding women," Hamed said.

According to Emad Abdel-Ghafour, head of the Nour Party, the party does not mind placing any of its female candidates on the top of any of the party's list. "Our candidate for the Alexandria constituency is a female university professor who is second on our list," said Abdel-Ghafour.

Yousri Hammad, a member of the Nour Party's High Committee, said none of the political parties is to be blamed for the weak representation of women in the forthcoming elections. "It is the new regulations of the parties' law which are to be blamed. The law stipulates putting a farmer and a worker along with at least one female on each political party list. This is what pushed women down to the end of the list," said Hammad, who added that the regulations will most likely create a weak parliament.

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