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Egypt's women face a choice between a rock and a hard place

By Jessica Grey   |   June 22, 2012 at 4:58 PM   |   Comments

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CAIRO (WOMENSENEWS)-- If new elections are held, Fatema Khafagy will not be sorry to see the months-old Islamist parliament go.

"Frankly speaking, we were not happy with parliament or the women there," says Khafagy, a board member of the Arab Alliance for Women, which educates women about family planning and promotes legal protection for victims of domestic violence. "We hope that we'll have better elections after the constitution is written."

Many liberals and women's groups were angry when Islamist parties won a majority of the seats in Egypt's first parliamentary polls after the fall of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, now in failing health. They were also upset that these groups would play a large role in the creation of the nation's new constitution.

Khafagy says the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative political force with a far reach, and other Islamist members of parliament had numerous draft laws in the works that targeted women, including lowering the marriage age to 16 from 18, abolishing no-fault divorce and favoring fathers in custody cases. If passed, the laws would have erased decades of work by Egyptian rights activists.

But her optimism is fading now that the ruling military council has used the political upheaval to make a power grab and put its own stamp on constitutional reform. Aside from the possibility of averting such laws, Khafagy says women have little to gain from either side of the mighty power struggle between the military and political Islam that is gripping the country.

On Monday, Egyptians woke up to find the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi claiming a narrow victory over Ahmed Shafiq, a former military general and prime minister under Mubarak, in landmark presidential elections.

What kind of leadership the newly elected Morsi will wield all depends on whether the current parliament is dissolved and new elections are held.

Mired in Confusion

The issue is mired in confusion since the Muslim Brotherhood and some parliamentarians are not recognizing the decision by the nominally independent constitutional court to dissolve the People's Assembly. (Use of the word "nominally" to describe the court is due to accusations that the Supreme Constitutional Court was coerced into hearing the case after the body in charge of elections declined to make a decision.)

Khafagy says the Islamists are "scared of women and how they are the backbone of so many [initiatives] in Egypt and that's why they want to put them down using religion and controlling them using every means."

The military, meanwhile, antagonizes and endangers politically active women. "Since the revolution, the military has been trying to eliminate women from decision-making positions and scaring them from . . . demonstrating in the streets, using physical abuse," says Khafagy. "We know they can be brutal . . . but women are not scared. If we want to be equal citizens in this country, we should not be scared. We should continue our work."

Security forces did not intervene on June 8 when mobs attacked a women's march against sexual harassment in the capital, leaving several people injured and several more reporting sexual assault. Hundreds of male and female protesters detained during the Abbaissaya clashes last month reported sexual harassment and abuse while incarcerated.

Last year, women celebrating International Women's Day in Cairo's Tahrir Square were mobbed by men and forced out. Just days later, more than a dozen Egyptian women were detained by military forces and forcibly subjected to "virginity tests" and sexual harassment. None of the authorities cited in a subsequent court case were found guilty.

The military junta, meanwhile, is doing all it can to put down and control Islamist politicians who have benefited from the revolution. In the process the country could revert to a Mubarak-era police state complete with "emergency rule."

The constitutional court ruled last week that a third of parliament had won their seats unconstitutionally two weeks ago since some party candidates ran for seats reserved for independent candidates not affiliated with a political organization. Most of the seats in question belong to Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi Al Nour party members.

A Chance for Liberals

If new elections are held Lamia Hassan, one of the founding members of the Free Egyptians Party, which did poorly in earlier parliamentary polls, sees a chance for liberals to fare better by learning from the example of Islamist politicians.

"If we compare the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis [to other movements], they were very organized and knew how to get to people who are not easy to reach, while the Free Egyptians Party did not do a good job in reaching people," says Hassan.

What happens next will largely depend on the military's plans to stay in power, says Mohamed Zaree, Egypt project manager for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. He and other activists are worried about several recent events, including a new decree allowing the military to arrest civilians without cause and the supplementary constitution declaration that prevents the president from overseeing military affairs.

"I think emergency law will be [implemented] again," he says.

Egypt's emergency law was in force for almost as long as Mubarak was president. It allowed security forces to arrest and detain any citizen without cause for as long as they deemed necessary.

Although military rulers have promised that the president will be able to form a new government, many believe the junta will still have ultimate control over Egypt's future.

Khafagy and Hassan say women will continue to be at the frontlines of protests and rights campaigning, no matter who is at the helm, as they have been since Jan. 25 of last year.

"There are so many brave Egyptian women who would never let [Egypt become an Islamist state] no matter what. For me, if I ever feel that my freedom is threatened, I will fight back until I get all my rights and freedom," says Hassan.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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