Where do women stand in the battle for Egypt’s future?
This blog has been written by Hisham Kassem, one of Egypt’s most prominent publishers and democracy activists. Hisham Kassem was, until recently, the publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm (“The Egyptian Today”), Egypt’s only independent daily paper. He is also former Vice President of the liberal opposition Hizb al-Ghad (Tomorrow Party), and has served as Chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Mr. Kassem is a staunch advocate of independent journalism, and stresses the importance of transparency in newspaper ownership and funding for preventing corruption and covert political influence.
More than two years after Egypt's populist revolution in which men, women and people from all across the social and age spectrum revolted to put an end to the 30 year old regime of Mubarak under the motto "bread, freedom, social justice" it is worth examining what this social and political upheaval has meant for the status of women in Egypt.
The country is going through political polarization manifested mainly in the confrontation between the Legislative and Executive estates on one hand and the Judiciary on the other. The Legislative is trying to pass legislation presented by the Executive branch to amend the law of the Judiciary on the grounds that it is a corrupt and nepotistic power that has become more of an unaccountable clan than a transparent and fair judiciary. On the other side the Judiciary is fighting tooth and nail to retain the status quo and is charging the Legislative and Executive branches with trying to pass a bill that will politicize the Judiciary and render it subordinate to the Executive branch, in turn ending the essence of due process and justice in the state.
These accusations and allegations aside, on both sides of the political battle for Egypt we find women marginalized drastically. In the Executive branch out of a 36-member cabinet only two ministers are women putting them at under 7 percent representation. Membership in the Shoura Council, the current legislating body, is not much better. When the troubling issue of harassment of women on the Egyptian street was discussed in the Human Rights Committee of the Council, some members went as far as to suggest that women should refrain from certain attire in public and avoid participating with men in political demonstrations alluding that their close physical proximity with men could tempt them to such conduct. In all bills they have presented so far on future political representation and participation none of them has had any consideration for enhancing the role of women in the political process.
On the other side the Judiciary remains adamant that it shall remain a men’s only club: there is hardly any representation of women within the ranks of the judiciary and all legislative amendments proposed by the Judges Club or the Supreme Judicial Council do not include any quotas or even equal rights opportunities for women to join the ranks of the judiciary.
The common ground between both powers struggling to impose the political future of Egypt is that they are both ideologically driven and the battle between them is to preserve tradition whether it be motivated by religion or maintaining a status quo. Neither side has an eye on human development indicators and both seem oblivious to the demands for a better future that echoed in the revolutions.
On another front and equally engaged in the battle for Egypt’s future is the fourth estate, the media. Driven by both performance appraisal and competition as well as having to face market research, measurement indicators and outreach to viewers on a daily basis, we see a different pattern evolve here. Some of the most prominent players are women, be it broadcast or print. Women’s growing participation in the media is an indicator that once an estate or sector is freed from ideological persuasions and considerations of tradition the need for women to participate becomes apparent.
The political players and policy makers in Egypt, once confronted by the realities of a democracy where competition is the basis for progress, will soon find themselves facing the question as to whether they can build an Egypt that meets the aspirations of a revolution by sidelining half of the talent and potential of society or whether the participation of women is clearly no longer strictly a human rights issue but an issue of a better future for the nation as a whole.