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The announcement of Egypt’s original Constituent Assembly showed that only six of the 100 members elected were women. Women are not a minority group in Egypt — that they represent half of Egypt’s population and a 6 percent say in the making of this fundamental document doesn’t quite add up. It goes without saying that justice requires equal participation, and six is not nearly half of 100.
The Administrative Court decision on 10 April to suspend the Constituent Assembly offers Egyptians another chance to build a balanced one. This article intends to demonstrate why this new committee must include equal representation of women. Women’s inclusion in the constitutional drafting process fosters the economy, development and nation building.
The World Bank has stated in its report “Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa” that the Middle East and North Africa would be richer and more developed if there was greater female participation in the economy. The report draws on evidence from other countries to demonstrate that it is impossible to greatly improve living standards with the participation of only half the population. The same report highlights that constitutional equality for men and women is key to assuring this economic development, alongside full participation of women in the decision-making process. It becomes clear that if Egypt wants to build its economy, it must include women in public affairs and ensure equal constitutional rights.
In addition, numerous studies by the UN and academics on violence against women also reveal how such violence is harmful for the national economy and in fact causes a loss tallying billions of dollars per year. A whole range of factors causes this loss, extending from decreased productivity in the workplace to burdening the healthcare and justice system. Indeed, violence and oppression of women costs money for the whole country. The inclusion of women in decision making counters violence and encourages empowerment of women. In short, including women in public decision-making is a strategy for robust economic development.
The call for women’s inclusion in the constitution-making process should not be confined to them being speakers of women’s issues only. Women have a unique appreciation of the whole spectrum of issues relating to public and civic life in Egypt. They represent a diverse set of opinions and ideas. Indeed, including women does not mean including a group of rights activists; rather, it involves the inclusion of a whole new spectrum of opinions on fundamental constitutional issues. Women’s opinions bring insight into issues that affect the whole population and that are shaped by their unique life experiences.
Yahia Zaied, project coordinator at Nazra for Feminist Studies, has worked closely to support the campaigns of female parliamentary candidates. In an interview, he noted that the women he has supported do not focus on women’s issues. Rather, they speak for their communities on a whole range of relevant political issues.
In addition to women’s capacities in business, the domestic roles assumed by women allow them to shape unique opinions on political issues. For example, they develop ideas on the economy and food security though purchasing food for their family, have ideas for education in their role as mothers, and view healthcare systems through their experiences with pregnancy and childcare. In this way, the argument that there are no qualified female candidates to be nominated for the Constituent Assembly — an argument made by some Islamists — is not tenable.
Those women who participate in women’s groups in Egypt have been campaigning on legal issues for almost a century. These women understand the current legal framework and have opinions about how the system could be improved. These engaged women offer any constitutional drafting process a wealth of expertise that includes excellent legal knowledge, an understanding of international practice and standards, and awareness of good practice in other countries.
Women are also known to encourage cohesion and consensus. Extremism and polarization doesn’t build a nation. Examples from post-conflict societies highlight women’s particular negotiating skills, which can change the dynamics of a complex and tense environment. Such examples include women’s role in bringing broken communities together for negotiations in Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Northern Ireland. In addition, female peacekeeping forces have also been considered an “operational imperative” by the United Nations because they provide unique social skills in a “macho domain” that bring calm and social cohesion.
A study of the Scottish constitutional changes by University of Edinburgh’s academic Fiona Mackay also highlights that women in politics offer a more collaborative approach, which supports constitution making. The negotiation of a constitution involves uniting divergent or opposing views with the aim of seeking a compromise. In this process, representatives who are able to assure cohesion and encourage consensus are essential.
Mary Robinson, previous UN High commissioner for human rights, has stated that: “No constitution which has failed to fully ensure the perspectives and concerns of women can be seen as fullylegitimate over time.” Indeed, for law to be followed in practice, it must have the appearance of being well-made. Bad procedure creates a law that lacks credibility. A constitution written without the inclusion of women’s voices will be written excluding half the population. Such a law cannot be understood as legitimate over time.
Unfair procedures in law making risks continued and prolonged instability and upheaval. Ensuring full and open negotiation, on the other hand, creates an environment in which peace and stability can flourish.
If no other reason appears convincing, there is good evidence that shows women are being included in constitution-drafting processes all across the Middle East and Africa. Traditional and religious arguments do not make sense in an attempt to exclude women. Women’s inclusion in the constitution-making process is not a Western trend.
Rwanda assured 25 percent of its commissioners were women in its 2003 constitution-drafting process; 24 percent of members of the current Tunisian Constituent Assembly are women; Libya has assured at least 20 percent of members elected to its constituent assembly will be women; 18 percent of commissioners in Kenya’s 2010 constitutional-drafting process were women; women represented 12 percent of Sudan’s CPA discussions in 2005. All these countries have provided more inclusive processes for women than Egypt did when creating the Constituent Assembly, which has fortunately been dismantled.
The women of Egypt offer a wealth of knowledge essential to build a representative national constitution. Fair representation of women in the new Constituent Assembly is the first step in assuring Egypt’s long-term development.
Catriona Knapman is a researcher and writer focusing on human rights and socioeconomic issues.