In Egypt, 2008 can easily be labeled the woman s year. In addition to numerous new legislations championing women’s rights, 2008 saw the first female marriage registrar, the first female village mayor and the first sexual harassment case brought to court by a young woman.
Israa Abdel Fattah became the face of a young generation adamant on making a difference. After creating a group on the social online sharing website Facebook calling for a nationwide strike on April 6 to protest the increasing prices, the 27-year-old found herself in prison and became an unwilling cause célèbre.
She was released a few weeks later declaring that she had made a mistake, and had repented. Later in June she took part in a press conference to talk about her experience. “My main goal is to make Egyptians have the free will to change little things such as decision making, which is related to their livelihood, and then we can change bigger things such as the political system, she said.
She said that she wasn’t expecting the strong response to her call for the strike on the Facebook group. She explained that the strike, which was against rising prices, was something that the majority of Egyptian families could relate to.
“I have a dream that Egyptian people will have the free will to change, and to be the higher authority in the state not the lower one, she concluded.
Last October, Noha Roushdy, a filmmaker in her late 20s, won the first sexual harassment case taken to an Egyptian criminal court, and more surprisingly, the sentence was handed out in the first hearing.
Sherif Gomaa Gibrial, an Egyptian driver, was sentenced to three years imprisonment and fined LE 5,001 on charges of sexual assault.
The harassment incident itself took place last June when Roushdy and a friend were walking down a Heliopolis street when Gibrial and suddenly swerved his car in front of them blocking their route.
He got out of his vehicle and proceeded to assault Roushdy in broad daylight. When he tried to drive off, Roushdy jumped onto the boot of his car. Undeterred by the crowd that urged her to let him go while indirectly blaming her, Roushdy called the police and Gibrial was taken into custody and she decided to press charges.
“This is a crime; there was an understanding of that and the criminal should be punished legally, not just maybe beaten on the street. He humiliated me and I got my own back, Roushdy told Daily News Egypt at the time.
The ruling can be seen as the precedent needed to finally effectively counter the prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt which in recent years has increased at an alarming rate. Although the court cited sexual assault laws in its verdict, women rights activists call for stricter laws in which sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical, is clearly defined.
“Girls, just be more positive and powerful because no one is going to fight for your rights; you have to stand up for yourself. I feel it’s time to say no to being passive even despite archaic societal perceptions, said Roushdy.
“At least in the past, when a woman was harassed in the street, people would step in to protect her. That era has long vanished, she added.
Many have posited their theories about the alarming rise in incidents of sexual harassment in the country, but Roushdy takes a slightly different tack to the limp justifications some might offer.
“Everyone [attributes] harassment to repression, but I think it is oppression, she says. “In psychological analysis, repression leads to depression and passiveness. There is political and economic repression [here] and no one has started a revolution. It [just] turns into more passivity. But the idea of oppression is what brought harassment out in society.
“Oppression makes people aggressive, Roushdy continues. “Each oppressed person has an ambition to oppress someone else to feel a balance, to not feel weak. So the regime oppresses the people and the people are split. So the man will oppress the woman he feels is less than him.
“So I believe people are passive because they are repressed, but they are harassing others because they are oppressed.
The female mazoun
Days after Roushdy’s victorious verdict, Egypt’s first female marriage registrar started her new job despite complaints by some conservative clerics that the move contradicts Islamic teachings.
During her first day on the job, 34-year-old Amal Suleiman Afifi married a couple in a mosque in the Delta town of Zaqaziq.
Many conservative clerics believe Sharia prohibits a woman from becoming a registrar because it states the testimony of two women is equivalent to one man in court. Therefore they believe a marriage contract signed by a woman would be illegal. More liberal minded clerics believe a marriage registrar is an official who purely plays an administrative role for the state, and therefore her signature on the contract does not violate Sharia.
The Egyptian constitution says Sharia should be the main source of legislation in the country but doesn’t specifically bar women from becoming marriage registrars.
Afifi first approached the Egyptian government last year seeking approval to become a marriage registrar, but the Ministry of Justice turned her down.
Following her rejection by the ministry, Afifi took her case to a family court that accepted her application to become a registrar in February. The court chose Afifi over 10 other male applicants for the job because of her “distinguished legal qualifications. The ministry eventually approved her position in September.
The first mayor
Also one month before the end of 2008, last December, 53-year-old Eva Habil, a 53-year-old Coptic lawyer, beat five male candidates, including her younger brother, to become Egypt’s first female mayor of the predominantly Coptic Christian town of Komboha in southern Egypt.
The Interior Ministry had approved the appointment in November.
“I don’t believe it. I am the first woman mayor of Egypt, she said. “My father was mayor (of Komboha). I was born here. I was not parachuted out of nowhere. The older generation, she explained, supported her more than the young of the town of 10,000 people.
Although Egypt was the first Arab country to give women the franchise in 1956, their progress in the public sphere has been slow over the decades amid increasing conservatism.
Today there are only nine female MPs in Egypt’s 454-seat parliament. Four were elected while the five others were appointed under presidential decree.
On the legislative front, women are theoretically the winners of the 2008 legal battles. They were given the right to register their children, whether through marriage or not, without the father’s consent. Obtaining a birth certificate is imperative in acquiring public education and health care to citizens. The age of marriage for women was also raised from 16 to 18.
The most important legislation was criminalizing female genital mutilation (FGM). Yet, opposition to this law was taken to court, where infamous hardliner Sheikh Youssef Al-Badry is suing Health Minister Hatem El Gabaly for outlawing the practice.
Al-Badry first filed the lawsuit in August 2007, one month after the death of 12-year-old Bodour, who died during a circumcision operation.
Al-Badry claims that the minister’s decision to criminalize circumcision conflicts with Sharia that, according to him, “allows circumcision. Al-Badry said the Minister’s decision violates the Egyptian constitution which stipulates that Sharia is the main source of legislation.
Cairo’s Administrative Legal Court case referred the case last December to Cairo’s Constitutional Court.
Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa had issued a fatwa banning circumcision in summer 2007.
According to a demographic and health survey carried out by USAID in 2000, 98 percent of Egyptian girls are subjected to circumcision. While 75 percent of adult women in the survey said they supported genital mutilation operations, the number still decreased from 82 percent, in a
n earlier survey carried out in 1995. -Additional reporting by agencies.