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Egyptian women campaign for larger role in parliament

A number of Egyptian women's rights activists are campaigning to increase female representation in parliament ahead of this year's elections.
A woman casts her vote during the second round of parliamentary run-off elections at Shubra in El-Kalubia, on the outskirts of Cairo January 10, 2012. Islamists aimed to cement control over Egypt's lower house of parliament as a final phase of voting began on Tuesday, while a secular party's plan to boycott elections for the upper chamber threatened to weaken the liberal bloc. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany  (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR2W3HV

CAIRO — Egyptian women today still suffer from cultural, social and political discrimination with no indication from policymakers for progress. Though women attained the right to political participation in 1956, significant development has been minimal. The January 25 and June 30 revolutions marked a significant change as women were at the forefront throughout.

Women have since been empowered and are more eager than ever to attain their rights. The recent triumph of Hala Shukrallah, the first female Coptic Christian to head a political party in Egypt — the Dostour Party — indicates the momentum for women to become more politically active.

“It is about time we as women realize that no one will defend us better than one of us!” exclaimed Shahira Mehrez, a renowned Egyptian activist, one of the founders of a new female political initiative, Women for Women (WFW), which began in Cairo in November 2013.

The initiative was led by Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Egyptian Feminist Union, and has been embraced by 200 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt’s 27 governorates. The Ministry of Social Solidarity subsequently granted permission for the Feminist Union to fundraise as of January 2014. The campaign intends to galvanize and empower women, to establish strong fundraising and lobbying groups and increase their participation in parliamentary and municipal elections.

The campaign, which has been introduced throughout Egypt, has only raised approximately 250,000 Egyptian pounds ($35,700), Badran told Al-Monitor, considerably below the 30 million Egyptian pounds ($4,285,000) target. To date, the fundraising has been solely directed toward private donations from the business sector and wealthy women. The Feminist Union is consequently intending to hire a company specialized in fundraising to assist. Fatima Khafagy, campaign co-founder and former head of the Office of Ombudsperson for Gender Equality at Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW), told Al-Monitor that most of the 100 female parliamentary candidates have been identified, herself among them. Parliamentary elections are expected to be held later this year.

It is a proactive step against biased propaganda marginalizing women, Christians and ethnic minorities, Mehrez told Al-Monitor. The main campaign beneficiaries involve disadvantaged female candidates from all over Egypt who have been serving their community. The notion that women from deprived backgrounds active at the grassroots could win a seat in parliament was an entirely novel concept.

Campaigners maintain that the influence of women officeholders will ensure the implementation of progressive public policies to guarantee that women have equal opportunities at home, in the workplace and in the public sphere.

“We are fighting for the future of Egyptian women. It is shameful that women’s representation in the last parliament was 1.8%, one of the world’s lowest, worse than Congo!” Mehrez said.

Central campaign goals include raising national awareness regarding the importance of having female parliamentarians and combating discriminatory patterns addressing tendencies to not vote for female counterparts. Confronting shortcomings within the new constitution is a key campaign ambition, though female activists acknowledge that fundamental drawbacks remain.

“Despite marginal improvements, the new constitution fails to allocate a female parliamentary quota,” said Badran, further detailing “linguistic frailties” in the charter, which facilitate loopholes in the strict application of existing laws aligned to women’s rights.

Gender equality as indicated in Article 11 remains dubious unless modifications in family law are applied in tandem, Khafagy said. The lack of legal reform in relation to violence against women is another issue highlighted by activists. Ultimately though, the current chief concern remains putting new legislative amendments into effect and ensuring women’s parliamentary representation.

In line with the campaign’s agenda, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) and the Parliament of Defending Women advocate female political participation. A minimum one-third female quota in any electoral system, whether individual, proportional list or mixed is necessary, affirmed ECWR. Notably, the coming parliament incorporates 666 members or 222 constituencies in which each have three members. Both female groups assert that the individual system should specify women’s allotted seats: two men and one woman and, if applied, the mixed system should secure them at least one-third of seats. 

For over six decades, Egyptian women have struggled to attain the right to political participation as voters and candidates. Women first attained this right in the 1956 constitution and were subsequently represented in the 1957 parliament with two seats. However, to date, since obtaining these rights, women’s parliamentary representation did not exceed 2% with the exception of the periods that adopted female quota systems and the proportional list system in 1979, 1984 and 2010.

Although six decades have passed, Egyptian women continue to be discriminated against. In 2012, Egypt recorded an immense deficit in women’s political rights as it ranked 125 out of 133 countries in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. In terms of women’s representation in parliament following the January 25 Revolution in 2011, Egypt ranked 128 out of 131 countries in the report, lagging far behind its Arab and African neighbors.

“Under [Mohammed] Morsi, there were less than 10 female parliamentarians and during [Hosni] Mubarak’s rule there were 68. They all aligned to the ruling party, giving no chance for independents,” Khafagy said.

Ultimately, the position of women as key actors for change cannot be understated. Egyptian women, say the activists, are the household keepers, positioned as the mother, wife and often the breadwinner. Women experience daily hardships more than men, observing first-hand the adverse effects of poor education, health care and nutrition for their children. Socioeconomic indicators are symptomatic of the deprivation of women, with an illiteracy rate of approximately 21.8% in 2010 and projected to be 20.5% by 2015 by the UNHCR’s Institute for Statistics. Many experts estimate the figure may be higher. In the poorer governorates of Upper Egypt, around 80% of females do not attend school, Ahmad Zayed, professor of political sociology and rapporteur of the education and training committee of the National Council for Women (NCW), said in an interview with Albawaba in September 2013.

Despite such grievances, women’s societal bearing will irrefutably be a definite force for change, Khafagy said. Women’s participation in the June 30 revolution is telling, emphasized campaigners, in addition to the rise in female parliamentary enthusiasts.

“Miracles have transpired over the last three years. This campaign will be the third. Women will finally attain their rights,” Abdel Nabi, Feminist Union member and WFW media officer, told Al-Monitor with utmost optimism. 

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