Egypt: 'The Council of Women in Egypt: Can it really defend women's rights?'

Washington Times Communities

A new council for women’s rights was established in Egypt a year after the Jan. 25 2011 revolution. Although it was harshly attacked by political activists for retaining the ideals of the wife of the former dictator, it is an important institution that works to protect the rights of women. It is perhaps the only official institution that attempts to give a voice to women, who are marginalized daily in the new Egypt, with many sectors attempting to sideline them from any vital role either socially or politically.

The council is an autonomous institution that aims to ensure women’s participation in all areas of development and provides programs and projects to strengthen the position of women. The focus is the empowerment of women economically, socially and politically, and creating an awareness of women’s legal rights. The future plan of the NCW—the council of women’s rights—is to raise the standard of living of women.  The Council also has a special program to fight illiteracy among women in Egypt; currently, illiteracy among women is almost 50%.

On Friday March 16th, 2012, Egypt celebrated Woman’s Day, where activists announced that they shall pursue the struggle for their rights under the principles of equality, livelihood, freedom social justice and human dignity. However, the issue of women’s rights was seriously criticized in the parliament, which is dominated by Islamist parties. Islamists objected to the name “Council for Women,” and wanted to replace it with “Family Council.”  On Sunday 18 March, 2012, an Egyptian lawmaker proposed a controversial draft law to the parliament to limit the legal provisions for women to divorce or separate from their husbands.

Conservative Islamist parties, Salafi, are worried about the presence of liberal parties. Salafi object to women in leadership roles, citing a saying that”no people succeed if led by women.”  When election regulations forced all parties to include women, Salafi Cleric Yasser El Borhamy said that by allowing women in elections, Salafists were committing small sins which is better than committing a larger sin. Borhamy was referring to the “larger sin” of losing the elections altogether.

Azza Al Garf, a member of parliament, severely criticized the rights of a woman to divorce her husband, and child custody regulations which allow a father to see his children for only 2 hours every week.  She says that stipulation violates Islamic Sharia, adding that she rejects “the western model, it is not the proper reference for family issues.”

Mervat Telway, the head of the NCW, said that those attacking the NCW use a set of clichés which they mix with religion as if they are the only Muslim Egyptian. She compared the rights of women in Egypt and with neighbouring countries like Southern Sudan, where women form 34% of the parliament.

The election of the Constituent Assembly by the people’s Assembly and Shura council members is slated to take place later in March, 2012. The 100 person assembly will then draft a new constitution. About 50% of these assembly members are from the Freedom and Justice Party, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Because of the domination of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties in Parliament, many fear the new Assembly will ignore women’s rights.  Activists are demanding that the new constitution protect the rights of women. Telaway says that if women’s rights are excluded, there will be serious social unrest after the presidential elections.

Almost all liberal Egyptians raise the question; “Can the New Council of Women protect their rights?”

By Anwaar Abdalla