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READ ON FOR UPDATE OF RUNOFF ELECTIONS

"By putting myself forward I am making this democratic right – the right of a woman to be president – a concrete reality, and that alters expectations" - BOTHAINA KAMEL[1]

Egyptians will begin to vote for their next president on May 23rd from nine main candidates who are all male. However Bothaina Kamel (pictured) originally was running as the only female candidate for the position as the nation’s first elected Head of State since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year.

Bothaina Kamel is standing for Egyptian president

Photograph: Reuters

“It doesn't matter to Egyptians whether someone is a woman or a man, what's important is whether it's someone who can understand and help them. The revolution has made Egyptians feel free, and that's why I'm running for president."[2] She argues that with the dominance of religious conservatives, women’s rights are under increasing attack since the revolution that swept Egypt and the Arab world last year. “Egyptian women have slept outside in the cold, they have faced the bullets, lost a son, a brother or a husband, they even died. But at the end, they were expelled from the constitutional reforms. Among the Members of Parliament only 2% are women… In this same Parliament, the Islamists are trying to lower the age of marriage to 12 so that these young girls can be married to some Gulf Countries dignitaries!”

Kamel failed however to gather the 30000 signatures necessary to be included on the ballot. Yet she promises that “I will pursue my political actions… Egypt needs more than an Arab Spring. The country needs an earthquake.”[3]

Women in Egypt are not significantly leaning towards any of the remaining particular candidates. However many remain committed to fighting for political representation. Egypt’s liberal Free Egyptians Party (FEP) has declared its support organizations and promoting women’s rights and anti-harassment laws. It has been reported that two-thirds of Egyptian women experience daily sexual harassment daily. [4]

The Head of the National Council for Women (NCW) Mervat al-Talawi has declared that whoever the President is, she will ask him to appoint a woman as his Vice President. Talawi has said that “the success of people is usually measured by the vital role played by the woman in development and her active role in the society.” [5]

Nehad Abul Qomsan is the head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights and believes that today Egyptian women are “more aware, stronger and more involved – like all Egyptians they are no longer afraid to raise their voices. But on a policy makers’ level, it’s different – the revolution is an orphan, it’s blind, there is no vision or leadership on women’s rights.”[6]

 

UPDATE: JUNE 4 2012

There are two very distinct movements to advance women’s rights in Egypt. One, the liberal secular movement, won a huge step forward with the revolution last year, placing women at the centre of the dramatic political and social changes sweeping the nation and region. Today however this momentum has receded again. There are no longer any female candidates for President and the shifts towards greater liberal reforms for women’s rights are now largely ignored by the military political factions and directly opposed by religious groups.[i] This is very discouraging and threatens many of the victories Egyptian women have won, yet it reminds us that there is still a role to be played by the other women’s movement – for religious reform.

The two remaining candidates will face each other in the Presidential election on June 16th and 17th: Mohammed Mursi representing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party, and Ahmed Shafiq, who served as air-force commander under ousted president Mubarak. Both of these candidates represent the more conservative sides across the central divide in Egyptian politics – between military and religious leadership.

At the end of May, around 2,000 protesters had gathered in Cairo's central Tahrir Square to protest Shafiq's presence on the run-off ballot, seeing him as far too connected to the ousted Mubarak. Now more than ever is Egypt polarized, many seeing the choices of the two candidates leading to an either autocratic or a religious state.[ii]

Although Mursi has criticized Shafiq’s policies towards women, Christians and other marginalized groups, in the run-up elections it was Amr Moussa who had most support among liberal feminists. He has no link to the Muslim Brotherhood, and although he is a former foreign minister under Mubarak, he does not have strong links to the old establishment in the way Mursi does. He represented the most apparently liberal agenda.[iii]

For the religious feminists, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh represented a moderate religious approach, in contrast with the more conservative Morsi, and may still offer a means to seek reform and women’s empowerment through engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The authority of Egypt’s Parliament, as an effective check on the power of the next president, with its small majority of the Democratic Alliance offers the next platform for political contestation.[iv] However the representation of women is among the poorest in the world – with only 10 of 508 seats in the People’s Assembly and 5 of 180 seats in the Shura Council (upper house).[v] In the face of these obstacles to direct political power, many feminists are looking to movement building, empowerment and grassroots activity.

Completing a Revolution: Where do women stand?

Egyptian women have over time born the brunt of changing economic, political and social conditions. “Periodic half-hearted campaigns to "open" or "reform" the economy have been part of the problem, as subsidies have been withdrawn, wages have fallen, and social welfare has devolved from a national responsibility to families and local or religious communities.”[vi] With neither of the two final candidates in the runoffs outwardly supporting women’s issues in Egypt, women potentially face a zero-sum game.

The spark and success of the Egyptian revolution is largely thanks to women. Women took to Tahrir Square and demanded for a change, not only for Egypt, but also for Egyptian women. Just as revolutions in Egypt’s past, this one will not be successful unless women’s issues are fully recognized and they are equally represented in Egypt’s parliament. Completing this revolution will require an alliance among male and female voters, politicians and bureaucrats who served the regime or who did not, the middle class, religious sects and labour activists.

“It will require serious work. There is a role here for civil society, for the media, for the spontaneous revolutionary groups and neighbourhood committees which have sprung up, as well as for the traditional opposition, the trade unions, and the civil service organisations. Across these groups, women have taken on new authority and their leadership will be crucial.”[vii]

 

 

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