News / Middle East

Egyptian Women Search for Place in New Government

Egyptian women chant slogans as they attend a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, April 1, 2011
Egyptian women chant slogans as they attend a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, April 1, 2011

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Egyptian women played a critical role in the revolutionary protests that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak last month. But as Egypt transitions toward a new government, questions are being raised about whether women will gain a stronger role in politics.

Social activist Zakeya el-Nahas was among the protesters who helped break years of political silence for Egyptian women. She says something changed when those protesters took to the streets on January 25.

"I couldn't resist except going every day," said el-Nahas. "You know I have to go every day. I mean the spirit was quite different. There was a bond between all the people there."

Women experienced a new level of freedom and equality during the 18 days of protests, as they demonstrated beside men and celebrated their success in bringing down the Mubarak government.

But Human Rights Watch researcher Nadya Khalife says that as the jubilation subsides and the reality of rebuilding the government takes hold, women are facing exclusion from the political process.

"There have been several groups who are opposing women's presence in politics," noted Khalife.  "They are opposing women's presence, who are demonstrating for equality. So I think it's not going to be an easy transition. But I think Egyptian women are adamant that they be included in these political processes."

She says no positions were given to women on the transitional council, known as the Committee of Wise Men, responsible for drafting amendments to the constitution.  And Article 75 of the constitution was written to imply that the head of state will be a man.

On International Women's Day, March 8, a mob of men attacked women who were demonstrating for equal rights in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of last month's anti-government protests.

Although women in Egypt's upper classes achieve professional and academic success, Human Rights Watch says family law discriminates against them in marriage, divorce, guardianship, custody and inheritance.

Valentine Moghadam, an expert on social change in the Middle East and North Africa, says cultural understandings limit many lower class women from getting jobs.  She says professional and technical jobs, held by middle and upper class women, are deemed more appropriate for women in Egypt.  But she says politics are not considered appropriate for women of any class.

"The world values survey and other kind of opinion polls do suggest a large proportion of the populations regard women's participation in politics and as political leaders as inappropriate, and that men make better leaders than women do," noted Moghadam.

Egyptian teacher Samah Khamis agrees.

"You can call most of the Egyptian women as politically illiterate," said Khamis.  "Two things were actually confined to men: sports and politics."

Moghadam, a sociology professor at Purdue University, says women have not had many influential allies in the government in the past, and it seems unlikely for the future.

"I don't think that it will be substantially different," noted Moghadam.  "The indicators and the signs at present do not lead me to be hopeful about any substantial presence on the part of women or representatives of women's groups."

Egypt's new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has appointed only one woman Cabinet member, although he said he will create a committee for women to take part in rebuilding the country.

Egypt became the first Arab nation to elect a woman to parliament in 1957. But nearly 50 years later, in 2005, the 782-seat bicameral parliament only had four women members.  In 2009, 64 seats were designated for women in the lower house of parliament.

Moghadam says women are at a disadvantage for September's parliamentary elections.  She says women do not have enough time to mobilize and be heard against political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and groups associated with the former government.

But some Egyptian women feel now is the time to focus on creating a democratic state. Khalife describes the opinion of one woman whom she approached in Tahrir Square on International Women's Day.

"She basically said that this is not the time for women to be demonstrating. It's time for the institutions to be built in the country, and then women's rights will come later," added Khalife.

Khamis, who was raised in a well-educated Egyptian family, believes it is critical for women to take part in government. But she says women have been excluded from politics for so long that they need to be educated about politics before they get involved.

"They first need to learn more about politics," said Khamis.  "They should first work again at a slower pace, slowly but surely to understand more about the society and how things are. Because we have been deprived of that for a very long time. You have to grow some kind of credibility first. I am not against the idea or concept, I am against the timing."

Khamis and social activist el-Nahas both acknowledge that Egyptian women and minorities have a long battle for equality ahead, but they are hopeful for change.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated Monday that women should be included in "every aspect of political and institutional reform" across North Africa and the Middle East. She says no government can succeed if it excludes half its population and does not respect the human rights of all its citizens.

Several women U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution this week, calling on leaders in the Middle East and North Africa to include women in constitutional and political reforms.

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