Continuing the battles of our ancestors

Since 25 January 2011, Egyptian women have entered a new phase of struggle. Analyzing the constitution-drafting process, currently one of the most significant fronts of women’s struggle, could help us understand the sociopolitical gender dynamics women face.

The constitutional debates started in March 2011, as masses in Tahrir Square called for a new constitution. Protesters demanded a revolutionary constitution, rejecting the minor amendments proposed by the Constitutional Amendment Committee.

At that time, different groups raised numerous demands. Gender equality was not among the urgent ones, even among progressive groups.

Despite the approval of the constitutional amendments, Egypt ended up with the Constitutional Declaration, issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The declaration designated Parliament to draft a new constitution.

Along with other popular initiatives that swept the country to engage people in the constitution-writing process, women and feminist activists started some initiatives on their own. Some were grassroots initiatives to survey what women wanted from the new constitution. Others were expert meetings or working groups.

While feminist groups demanded 50 percent female representation in the Constituent Assembly, only seven of 100 members were female.

Feminist activists’ disappointment sprang not only from the weak representation of women, but from the fact that most of those women belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood — and their views on female equality are no secret to any of us.

Drafting the post-25 January constitution is a failing process because of its opacity, and because of the lack of citizen engagement.

The Constituent Assembly proposed a “societal dialogue” — hearing sessions with representatives of different social and political groups. These, to a large extent, were cosmetic procedures — political polish to give legitimacy to the drafting process.

I have had personal experience with one of these meetings, organized for activists in the fields of academia, women’s rights and children’s rights. The session was held at Cairo University during Ramadan.

During the meeting — in which we discussed our proposals with two assembly representatives — we were not handed any proposed articles because the “distinguished members” thought it was not important to bring them.

We were informed that equality would be guaranteed for women in the constitution.

However, they elaborated that according to “Sharia,” women cannot be equal to men in inheritance, and polygamy is sanctioned for men but not women. They added that absolute equality would give women the right to divorce on equal basis, which is forbidden according to the interpretations they adopt for Sharia.

Our comments were not taken seriously. And when one of us used the buzzword “gender,” they said they preferred not to use such a word, since it comes with a negative connotation. Ironically, on their website, “People writing their constitution,” they referred to this meeting as a meeting with “Egypt’s businesswomen”!

But we got a number of impressions regarding the female members of the assembly.

They are completely satisfied with their minor roles in the drafting process. They genuinely accept being inferior to their male counterparts. They reputedly declared how ignorant they are, stressing they lack expertise on constitutional law.

The constitution-writing process has been full of ignorance about the demands of ordinary people, political parties and social groups. So when the draft came to light, we discovered the catastrophic Article 68 (which guarantees gender equality as long as it does not violate the Sharia) — the only article other than Article 2 that mentions Sharia.

Moreover, Article 9 considers “family” the foundation of society. The state pledges in this article to protect family morals. It puts on its shoulders a guarantee of coordination between women’s obligations toward their families and their work in society.

This article reaffirms heteronormative values. It testifies to the Constituent Assembly members’ views on so-called women’s traditional roles (pregnancy and raising children). It can be easily used to restrict the freedom of sexual orientation, gender identities and women’s roles in public life.

The ultra-fundamentalist Salafi members of the assembly were outraged by Article 71, which would criminalize trafficking of women and children. This fierce opposition is just the beginning of future attempts to decriminalize child marriage, which many Salafis and Brotherhood members advocate.

Prominent members of the so-called “civil/secular parties” led the negotiations with the Brothers and Salafis. They held many meetings to reach a compromise on the proposed articles.

Some activists wanted a guarantee that Egypt would hold to its international obligations, including the Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

For experienced politicians, this was madness, a dream we could never fulfill. In a country where women’s issues are not prioritized and their status quo is disastrous, all that could be hoped for was the removal of the article on women altogether from the constitution, to close the door for extremist interpretation of Sharia. And this we succeeded in achieving.

We are still going through the battles of our feminist activist ancestors — battles they fought a century ago. They fought for our basic rights, like the right to work and education.

We started our post-25 January struggle by asking for parity and demanding equality and non-discrimination. We ended up with total omission of the article on women from the constitution. Yet, for many, this is a success in this tough transitional period.

Dalia Abd Elhameed is the gender and women’s rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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