Al Arabiya News is marking International Women’s Day, and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, with a special series profiling leading women and women’s rights champions around the world.
Feminists and women’s rights activists were among the most hopeful when the Jan. 2011 revolution took place with promises of equality. However, women’s rights issues remains a subject of much controversy. Four years since the first post-revolutionary International Women’s Day, is the annual celebration being matched by changes on the ground?
Hassan al-Shamy, a member of the Arabic Organization for Human Rights (AOHR), said Egyptian women have not been rewarded for their role in the revolution. “Women paid with their lives and... participated in all important political events that followed the revolution, yet weren’t adequately appreciated.”
Shamy said allocating half of parliamentary seats for women is among the most crucial steps that need to be taken toward gender equality. “Women should also have access to all kinds of official positions.”
An AOHR statement expressed concern over the safety of women during protests, and cited the recent death of leftist activist Shaimaa al-Sabagh in a peaceful march commemorating the fourth anniversary of the revolution. “Sabagh’s fate is an indication of the spread of violence against women even though article (11) of the constitution grants women full rights,” said the statement.
The Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions issued a statement highlighting the reasons why women have not been granted enough rights post-revolution. “On the financial level, most women are still dependent on the male members of their families and on the political level, they are still not equated... even though the 2014 constitution prohibited discrimination between men and women.”
The statement added that constitutional and legal rights will never be efficient as long as social constructs are not drastically altered. “We still live in a patriarchal society where tradition takes precedence and where women are still expected to be confined to the domain of the house while men dominate public space.”
Haitham al-Hariri, a member of Al-Dostour party, said the state cares about women only as voters. “Only during times of elections and referenda are women given extra care and their participation in the political scene is promoted as crucial. Yet when this isn’t the case, women are still raped and sexually assaulted in the streets.”
The next parliament, Hariri added, will be an indication of whether actual change will take place. “The percentage of women in the previous parliament was shameful,” he said, in reference the predominantly Islamist parliament elected after the revolution.
However, writer Ola Abdullah wrote that the 2014 constitution, drafted after the toppling of President Mohamed Mursi, has done great justice to women. “Women have a special status in the 2014 constitution. Around 20 articles in this constitution are directly about women and focus especially on equality between men and women in all civilian, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, granting women access to senior official position, and protecting women from all sorts of violence.”
Some things, she adds, have also been achieved since 2011. “The percentage of women occupying official positions reached 36.3% in 2013 and the current government features five women ministers while the diplomatic representation of women rose to 22.5% in 2012.”
On the downside, Abdullah said the percentage of women in the judiciary does not exceed 4 percent, and women are still unable to join the General Prosecution Authority or the State Council. “There are also certain offices that women have never occupied like president, prime minister, and governor.”
Abdullah said the number of female registered voters rose to 48 percent in 2012, which translates to 23 million, and the participation of women in the various polling processes since the revolution was historic, yet this is not reflected in female representation.
“Women constituted only 2% of the 2012 parliament and the new constitution did not specify a quota of women in upcoming parliaments and only allocated one quarter of municipal councils to women.”
Abdullah said violence against women remains the toughest challenge. “A 2014 report showed that 91% of women in the country and 85% in the city are subjected to female genital mutilation. And 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.”
This issue, said Abdullah, still awaits the next parliament which will look into a draft law prepared by the National Council for Women and aimed at countering violence against women.
A study by the Cairo Center for Development and Human Rights said cancelling the women’s quota is a major reason why their representation in the 2012 parliament was very weak.
This “is bound to limit the number of seats women will get in the 2015 elections,” said Amr Samir, a researcher in political sociology and a participant in the study. “This issue won’t be solved until article (11) of the 2014 constitution about gender equality, which is one of the best since the 1923 constitution, is implemented through a set of legislations.”
The study recommends allocating 60 percent of each electoral list to women and 50 percent of the total number of seats. “Other recommendations include exempting women from the administrative fees of candidacy, and giving women space and airtime equal to men to promote their political agendas,” said Ali Hossam al-Din, a political researcher and another participant in the study.
Some analysts view the underestimation of post-revolutionary achievements in women’s rights as influenced by international reports that magnify the problems facing women in Egypt. Howaida Mustafa, professor of mass communication, said members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been living in Europe since Mursi’s ouster, and have infiltrated many organizations to tarnish the image of Egypt.
“That’s why those reports are biased and only focus on condemning violations committed against women and ignoring all achievements,” she said. “The state is actually keen on including women in different decision-making positions, but the problem is that this isn’t shown in the media to counter outside claims.”
Mona Omar, former secretary-general of the National Council for Women, refuted allegations about the rise of sexual harassment and the prevalence of human trafficking in Egypt. “Egypt is witnessing a remarkable development in the field of women rights. The National Council for Women prepared a comprehensive plan for countering violence against women in coordination with 11 ministries.”
Omar said a special unit of female police has been created by the Interior Ministry to deal with sexual harassment. “The ministry is paying close attention to this issue, and the recent verdicts against harassers provide the ultimate proof.”
Hoda Badran, head of the Egyptian Feminist Union, said: “Women’s problems in Egypt are extremely exaggerated. This is only a political campaign.”
This article is part of Al Arabiya News' Special Coverage on International Women's Day.