Egypt: 'Why Women are at the Heart of Egypt's Political Trials and Tribulations'


The Egyptian elections delivered a parliament that has one of the lowest rates of female representation in the world. Yet this is the parliament that expresses the political will of the people of Egypt. It may also be one that ignores the social realities of gender and of women’s political participation, says Hania Sholkamy.

The mostly free and somewhat fair elections held in Egypt over the past two months have given the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood an overwhelming majority in parliament (approximately 40 %). The runners up are the Salafis who did very well at the ballot box and hold up to twenty percent of seats. Trailing behind, but with heads held high are the liberals, the revolutionaries  and a number of highly respected individuals who profess a secular creed. Almost all of these newly minted representatives of the people are men. In this protracted battle of multiple voting days, legal challenges, re-runs and complicated allocations of seats across proportionate party lists and individual seats only 8 of the 480 + seats went to women. (There are still ten seats to be allocated by presidential fiat )

But if we bracket yet unallocated seats the final result would give women less than 2% of parliamentary seats and make their representation in Egypt one of the lowest in the world. According to the UN the world average for women’s parliamentary representation is 19%. Even more revealing is the average for the Arab World, which stands at 13%. So what explains this dismal outcome of an election for which Egyptians have waited for decades?  No other Arab country has failed to deliver a modicum of gender balance to its elected institutions to the same extent. Morocco for example has just had an election in which 16.7 % of successful candidates are women and in which the overwhelming majority of seats went to the Islamic opposition.

What truly provides food for thought is the complacency with which these election results have been received. Few politicians, officials or commentators have voiced any concerns or found these outcomes remarkable, despite the importance placed on these elections as one of the first real gains and achievements of the revolution.

For example Dr. Manal Abu el Hassan (FJP member and spokesperson for women’s affairs) sees no problem in the low number of successful female candidates from her own party, She indicated that the new parliament, even if made up of only men, will do the right thing and deliver social justice in line with the Party’s programme so there is no need to be concerned by the absence of women. Indeed she further confirmed this trust in her male colleagues in a televisioninterview on the 14 January 2012 when she condemned the women’s protests against the brutality of attacks by the military police against the very brave young women who were challenging the armed forces across a barricade in downtown Cairo. She said that women should not march in the streets to protest and protect their honour, since "it is incumbent on their ‘fathers, brothers and husbands to march and protest on their behalf!” So as far as her party is concerned the concept of welaya or guardianship is a robust one that negates the need for gendered representation. It makes one wonder if the FJP would have bothered to put any women on their lists if they had not been forced to do so by the new constitutional declaration, which imposed a quota for women on party lists, mandating that each list has one woman but without specifying the position of the woman on the list (the higher up the more likely a candidate will win a seat). Unlike the quotas for workers and peasants, where the candidates are given slots on the lists that give them a fair chance of success, women candidates’ placement suggests their inclusion is merely a gesture and their chances of success minimal.

It also explains why one of the Salafi parties in one constituency placed the picture of a candidate’s husband on their posters instead of the fully face veiled candidate herself.

One of the FJP’s successful female candidates speaking at a meeting  recently said “One woman is enough in Parliament!” She meant that a freely elected woman was better than tens appointed or foisted onto the people via quotas or corruption. The point is well taken, and does express mass resentment at the imposition of female quotas that were introduced in the discredited elections of 2010. When the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) cancelled these quotas for women people were happy that a wrong had been put to right. The result was that all parties, with very few exceptions, kept their women where they thought they belong; well below the men, thus guaranteeing unequal opportunities for women!

On the other hand the youth of the revolution, the radicals and the left also see no problem with this outcome as they reject the whole narrative of gender equality as a figment of a Western imagination. The denigration of legal reforms that have benefited women in the past decade, and have guaranteed their free mobility, right to unilateral divorce, and political representation through a quota system, are collectively known as Suzanne’s laws in reference to Mrs Mubarak and as such rejected and even deplored. These formal indicators are meaningless since policies matter, but individuals do not. 

Young activists and socialist parties are not sympathetic to gender as a political category, or as basis for rights and entitlements. The hundreds of frontline fighters in their midst who also happen to be women have attained their credentials as political leaders and foot soldiers without having to make claims based on their gender. They are keen to distance themselves from the language of gender equality and the recipes and prescriptions of old political and developmental paradigms. Interestingly, the world famous bloggers of the revolution are mostly women – like Israa Abdel Fatah, Nawara Negm and Asmaa Abdel Rahman. The most striking images from the new confrontations between people and the state portray women, and the marches and protests that forced the military to back-down and apologize were by women. Moreover the elections were decided by the overwhelming participation of women, millions of whom were mobilized onto the streets and towards the ballot box.

Elections aside, there are growing fears and worries about the future of pluralism in Egypt, and many of these fears focus on questions of women’s rights and liberties. A petition organised by independent women on facebook is currently going around demanding the prosecution of one of the potential presidential candidates who has made statements about women that are in contravention of our constitution - or rather what is left of it. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail has asked for the expulsion of non-veiled women from Islam- thus making them apostates, which is a crime. He has also said that women’s work leads to crime as a woman’s place is within the home. The press has reported recently that other Salafi groups have started a morality police that allegedly pays young men five hundred Egyptian pounds a month to impose morality on the public, including forcing un-veiled or rather improperly veiled women off the streets . Happily these attempts were foiled thanks to media and public outrage. One group of women even attacked this morality police in Sharqiyah. These zealots are a minority and may not be the worst enemies of women.

At stake, and in a serious fashion, are the possible changes to be made to the constitution that will limit women’s rights as individuals – the rights to public office, to guardianship of children, to all work, to some forms of mobility - and impose a state of dependency whereby women are considered parts of families and are therefore the responsibility of patriarchs. It is as yet not clear what the agenda of the religious majority is vis-à-vis legal reforms that pertain to women and families. One stated reform is the changes in custody law which will once again give custody to fathers in the case of divorce of children from the age of 8 years. The law now lets mothers retain custody for boys till the age of 15 years, and for girls until they marry or choose to live with the father. Yet despite the astounding importance of women as political leaders, activists, communicators, voters and as the focus of anticipated political, constitutional and social changes, they remain absent from parliament - although present, vocal and important outside it.

Egypt would be better off if it could continue to shed the oppressions of the past, including the hegemony of state sponsored spokespersons for women’s rights. The attempts to whitewash the failure of equitable social policies by imposing gender justice as a fig leaf not only failed, but created public antipathy towards women’s rights to social justice. But these sceptres from the past need not haunt the present and future of Egypt, and must definitely not provide an excuse for our current state of denial in which women are actually at the heart of the political process, but are formally hidden behind all -male structures and institutions. Shame on the religious, secular and all other parties for their complicity in this affair!

Hania Sholkamy is an anthropologist and Associate Profressor at the Social Research Centre, American University in Cairo