Egypt: Post-revolution women fear further exclusions and even being asked to step aside Print E-mail

21 - 27 April 2011 Issue No. 1044

New concerns for women?

Should women be concerned about their rights after the revolution, asks Dena Rashed

I shall remain free

It doesn't take a long conversation before one hears the phrase, "women in Egypt have enough rights. What more do they want?" This is a question that is often heard in conversations with some men, often when women are discussing their lacking rights.

However, over the past few weeks the question has been given a new urgency in the light of news that some voices have been calling for a review of certain laws that concern women. Debates in the media have included the right of divorced parents to have access to their children, khul' -- the right of a woman to divorce without her husband's consent if she forgoes her financial rights -- and the quota of women in parliament.

Since Egypt has become more accustomed to demonstrations since the 25 January Revolution, it was less surprising when divorced husbands took to the streets to demonstrate some weeks ago in order to demand changes in the law that would allow them to see more of their children. Their main demand was to change the law that allows divorced husbands to see their children but not to have custody of them.

Women's and mothers' NGOs responded by stressing mothers' rights, warning of attempts to take away existing rights. It has been particularly alarming over recent weeks that laws governing the rights of women have been dubbed "Suzanne's laws", in reference to the wife of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Nihad Abul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (NCWR), is one activist who has been feeling that women are being excluded from the revolution and even being asked to step aside. She believes that the debate on changing the rights of divorced husbands is meant as a blow to the whole personal status law, as she told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview.

"If we want to provide a decent environment for men, then we have to do the same for women. There is definitely a problem with the law providing the right of divorced fathers to see their children, since mothers have custody of the children until the latter are 15. At the same time, the law does not provide mothers with an efficient way to attain alimony for their children. As a result, we have mothers with children but no money available from the father's side, so mothers end up having a grudge against the father," Abul-Qomsan said.

The state, she says, has abdicated its responsibility in this area, letting society handle it in the way it thinks fit and making alimony something that a woman has to struggle for on a personal basis. "When matters are like this, we can't just ask for a certain part of the law to be changed and leave the rest. The revolution didn't arrive to abolish women's rights, which is why we need a clear statement from the Military Council stressing the protection of women's rights."

Abul-Qomsan said that certain Islamist forces could be using women's rights as an entry point into political debate, particularly when the country as a whole is busy with political arrangements. Women, she says, have been largely excluded from the new cabinet and from the constitutional committee that framed the recent constitutional amendments.

There are also concerns over khul'. Over the past few years, and especially after the khul' law in 2000, this has been seen as a victory for women by many people rather than as a right long granted by Islam. Abul-Qomsan believes that voices now calling for a review of the khul' law want women to return to the situation before the law was passed.

In the absence of reliable statistics on cases of khul', Abul-Qomsan believes that many people may be under the impression that many women resort to this law, which is not in fact the case. "People need to know that the majority of divorce cases do not employ khul '," she says. "If society hasn't been able to accept khul' more than 10 years after its inception, this means that government, education and the media have not played their proper role in showing that this right is important to society."

For Abul-Qomsan, the Muslim Brotherhood has been casting doubt on the law. "They say they are for Sharia law, yet they argue that khul' does not conform to the values and traditions of society. This raises the question of what kind of Egypt we want, and what kind of principles we want: human rights and democracy, or certain traditions of society?"

As an activist, Abul-Qomsan believes that the loudest voice tend to get heard, though these may not represent majority views. "With no clear statements from the government, does this mean that the government agrees with such voices," she asks. She fears that there is now a perception that the revolution, the work of liberals and leftists, may now be handed to the Islamists, bypassing the rights of women.

While Abul-Qomsan is disturbed by ongoing calls to scrutinise the laws regarding women, Azza Suleiman, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA), says that her concerns are not only about women's rights. "There are certainly many doubts at the moment, but the most important of these is how to make Egypt into a properly civil country," she told the Weekly.

Like Abul-Qomsan, Suleiman believes that there is a need for balance, "Men should not be given certain powers in cases of divorce when it comes to the right of custody of the children, if women do not have similar powers. A man has the right to divorce a woman, while the courts only allow women to divorce men for a limited set of reasons. While a woman may spend years in court trying to get alimony payments, her former husband can make a new life for himself and remarry. While it used to take a woman 10 years in court to get a divorce, now it takes five, which is still too long. The khul' was based on the Sharia law in the sense that the marital relationship has faltered, but a woman can spend a year and half even getting that."

Suleiman believes that all voices should be heard in the debate on women's rights, but at the same time, she says, there needs to be a revolution in education. Change is needed, she adds, but this change should reinforce perceptions of the value of women in society, and religious scholars should be asked to back such ideas.

"There is a need to ensure that the law is fair to women. When laws are made, all voices should be heard, and if someone says that the Sharia should be applied, they should be asked to explain how this will take place in real contexts. Activists and NGOs who have been working on social matters should also be invited to consult on the laws."

Suleiman, who started working in the field more than a decade ago, argues that in the same way that NGOs have developed their opinions over time, so change is inevitable from law makers.

She has also heard the voices that label certain laws concerning women "Suzanne's laws," a matter that she believes is superficial. She understands where such kinds of thinking come from, even if she does not care for them herself. "This clause about the right to see the children for divorced husbands was formulated in 1929. It has nothing to do with Suzanne Mubarak. However, I do believe that the National Council for Women and the Council for Motherhood and Childhood [both supported by Mrs Mubarak] should be reformed and restructured."

Suleiman shares many of Abul- Qomsan's views, yet she seems more optimistic. There is little focus on the role of women right now, she says, but along with other NGOs, her organisation has decided to talk about women's rights at public meetings in an effort to get them on the agenda nonetheless.

One way of enhancing women's participation in public life would be to reform the electoral system, and Suleiman also argues that the question of quotas for women should also be readdressed. "Are we going to give women a quota in parliament simply to encourage them to participate, or is this intended with certain political goals in mind, like in the last parliament where 62 women of the 64 who came in through the quota system were NDP members?"

One way forward might be to bring back the party lists system, Suleiman says, since she fears that a quota system, were it continued today, would favour the Muslim Brotherhood.

In fact, it is unclear whether the quota system will remain part of the electoral system, with some voices calling it unconstitutional, like that of constitutional law professor at Cairo University Atef El-Banna. The latter believes that the quota system, devised to increase the number of women sitting in parliament, negates the principle of equality in the constitution, since people should not receive favours on the grounds of gender or religion.

Although the constitution is not now functioning as a result of the constitutional declaration issued by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, El-Banna says that this does not necessarily mean that the system has been cancelled. It should be discussed, he says. The stipulation in the constitution that says that parliament should consist of 50 percent workers and 50 percent peasants should also be cancelled, he says.

Suleiman disagrees, saying that the quota system is not unconstitutional, since articles 8, 11 and 40 of the constitution discuss the role of the state in supporting women in society and in families, saying that law makers should take steps to enhance their role. The quota system is one such step, she says.

Whatever the case may be, El-Banna argues that all the country's existing laws should now be reviewed, adding that it is well-known that certain laws are associated in people's minds with presidents' wives. The same thing happened with laws promoted by Jehan El-Sadat, wife of former president Anwar El-Sadat, he says. This, for him, is anyway not the issue, and he argues that any criticisms of these laws should be made the object of public debate.

We should be looking for the most qualified people in all areas, he said, whether these are men or women, old people or young people. "As for the women who have criticised the lack of female members on the committee that amended the constitution, this is a strange point of view. The committee does not operate with a quota system, and its members do not have to represent different segments of society. I utterly refuse that kind of logic."

For Sameh Ashour, former head of the Lawyers' Syndicate, "a party lists system would give women a good chance in the forthcoming elections, and it could be used instead of the quota system."

While this system has been attracting growing interest, women like Abul- Qomsan and Suleiman, dedicated to the cause of women's rights, have been touring the governorates in order to try to raise women's awareness. Suleiman's campaign is called, "Let's Write our Constitution with our Own Hands," and she aims to try to raise people's awareness and to discuss the issue of rights with them. The campaign also focuses on citizenship and what this means. "It is part of our fight to lift the fog in front of people's eyes," she says.

Abul-Qomsan, also recently back from Ismailia where she had been conducting one of her awareness-raising campaigns, is also concerned to talk to people and to try to raise awareness of women's rights. While she is concerned about the future of women's rights in Egypt, she is optimistic too, saying that the women she meets across Egypt are strong and that they are determined to retain their free will.