Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Two steps back

Women’s hard won rights are under attack, reports Reem Leila

Two steps back
Two steps back
Al-Ahram Weekly

As the first round of referendum on the constitution took place on 15 December women emerged as leading critics of the referendum process, not least because of their effective exclusion from its drafting.

Ahead of the vote organisations such as the National Council for Women (NCW) and the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) joined a host of NGOs conducting regular sessions aimed at increasing women’s awareness about the draft constitution’s loopholes regarding their rights.

Days before the referendum women activists were mobilised to urge women to vote “no” to the draft while on referendum day the Ombudsman’s Office of the NCW received more than 400 complaints, the vast majority from women, of polling violations. These have now been passed on to the Supreme Elections Committee (SEC) for further investigation.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that women’s participation in the referendum was high though the NCW does not yet have figures of how many turned out to vote.

Although women took part in the 25 January Revolution they have gained little in its wake. Instead there have been repeated attempts to annul what advances had been secured in the previous decade. Some commentators argue that one of the main reasons for this backlash is the fact that former president Hosni Mubarak, his wife and sons were behind most moves to promote women’s rights.

ECWR Director Nihad Abul-Komsan says the way women’s issues used to be personalised around Suzanne Mubarak constitutes a major hurdle. The NCW, created under the auspices of the former first lady, had a mandate to identify problems facing women and suggest possible solutions.

“The concept behind the council is great. The problem is that it was created by an authoritarian regime,” she says.

The NCW played a major role in promoting new legislation. In 2000 parliament passed a law allowing wives the right to khul — a swift, unilateral and irrevocable divorce — on condition any dowry is returned to the husband.

In 2005 the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) launched the Free Villages project which aimed to eliminate the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The initiative, encouraged by Al-Azhar, concerned UN agencies and the European Commission, sought to change attitudes towards FGM by raising awareness about the physical and psychological harm caused by the brutal practice.

In 2007 Health Ministry decree 271 banned medical staff from conducting FGM operations in any public or private hospital or clinic. Doctors found to have taken part in such operations could henceforth have their licence to practise revoked for five years and any clinic that had allowed its premises to be used could be closed down. In 2008 a child law was issued criminalising FGM: anyone conducting an operation could face up to two years in prison as could parents who subjected their daughters to the painful and potentially fatal ordeal.

In 2005 child custody laws were amended to allow mothers custody of both sons and daughters up to the age of 15, after which the child could decide which of its divorced parents it lived with. Previously fathers automatically gained custody of sons over the age of 10 and daughters over 12.

Further gains women won during the Mubarak presidency were the reintroduction of a law stipulating that a husband can be imprisoned if he does not pay his ex-wife alimony. Another law, which had previously stipulated that women need their husband’s consent in order to travel abroad, was cancelled after the revolution.

In 2009 a parliamentary quota for women was adopted. Sixty-four seats were reserved for female parliamentarians though in the aftermath of the revolution the quota, which had always angered religious conservatives, was cancelled. There were also calls to disband the NCW and replace it with a council for family affairs.

“The NCW has now been marginalised. Soon it will fade into obscurity. Thankfully, though, attempts to reverse khul have been successfully thwarted till now,” says Abul-Komsan.

The attrition faced by laws enshrining women’s rights is nowhere more clear than in the draft constitution that the Islamists are desperate to see passed, say female activists, politicians and feminists.

Mervat Al-Tellawi, secretary-general of the NCW, says women “are being pushed backwards despite their long years of struggle”.

“The FGM law is being ignored as Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood claim genital mutilation protects females from deviating from the righteous path of good manners.”

The deliberately vague wording of Article 71, says Al-Tellawi, opens the door to decriminalising the practice.

Article 68 stipulates that the state will guarantee women’s political, cultural, economic and social parity with men as long as it is in accordance with “provisions of Islamic Sharia”. It is the final phrase, says El-Tellawi, which will be used to undermine gender equality since the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi allies claim a monopoly on interpreting Islamic Sharia.

Why, asks Al-Tellawi, do all the draft articles relating to women’s rights end with the Sharia coda when “it is already stipulated in Article 2 that the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation”.

Article 29 of the draft stipulates that Egyptian nationality is an inalienable right that cannot be withheld from any citizen. Al-Tellawi wonders why it did not specify “each and every person born to an Egyptian father or Egyptian mother”.

In October 2003 Nationality Law 1975/26 was amended to allow individuals born to Egyptian mothers and non-Egyptian fathers to become Egyptian citizens. The wives and children of Egyptian men were automatically granted Egyptian nationality while Egyptian women had hitherto been unable to pass their nationality to their children. Under the amended law Egyptian women could pass on their nationality in compliance with constitutional guarantees of equal rights for men and women.

Al-Tellawi deplores the absence of guarantees in the draft constitution that international conventions to which Egypt is a signatory are binding, or that the state will enforce gender equality. The NCW has also criticised changes to the constitution’s language on human trafficking. The word “prohibiting” has been replaced by the word “hindering” in Article 71 which relates to slavery, violation of women’s and children’s rights, and human trafficking.

The reality is women have been completely marginalised in the nation-building process. The almost complete absence of women from the Constituent Assembly which drafted the constitution was roundly condemned by more than 100 women’s organisations.

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