CAIRO: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” Loula Zaklama, president and CEO of Rada Research and PR company, said quoting former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in the opening session of a forum organized by Egypt’s International Economic Forum.
The forum titled “Egypt’s First Female President: Why Not?” included a number of successful, prominent women invited to talk about the role Egyptian women play in the political arena and the possibility of an Egyptian woman becoming president.
“Women play a prominent role in economic and social aspects of life now in Egypt, but when it comes to their participation in the political arena, we find it very limited,” said Alia El-Mahdi, dean of the faculty of economic and political sciences at Cairo University.
According to a 2005 survey by the World Economic Forum of 58 countries, Egypt ranks only 55 on the scale of the political empowerment of women, which is lower than many other Muslim countries including Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
The panelists believed that the reason behind this is the social and cultural environment in Egypt that undermines the value of women in the political field and firmly believes that “being a president is a man’s job.”
Panelists also cited the wide misconception among people that Islam doesn’t approve of the idea of a female president.
Mona Makram Ebeid, professor at the American University in Cairo, said Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, the late Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, issued a fatwa (religious edict) to the Indonesian News Agency in 1999 allowing women to become president.
According to a 2010 poll held by the Public Opinion Poll Center (POPC), 71 percent of men and 43 percent of women don’t approve of having a female president.
On the other hand, Tahany El-Gebaly cited her success story in becoming deputy chief of Justice of the Supreme Court, a field dominated by men, proving that it’s not impossible to have a female president in Egypt.
“Running for president is a constitutional right for every Egyptian citizen, whether it’s a man or a woman, but for a woman to actually achieve this, she would need to be prepared to enter a long, tough battle,” El-Gebaly told Daily News Egypt
Women are still fighting for their right to be judges in the State Council in Egypt.
The body’s general assembly voted against the right of 25 women to become judges in the state council last February.
Women’s rights activists were outraged by the vote and are now waiting for the final verdict from the Egyptian Supreme Court in the case.
“The women have proven themselves as judges in the family courts and criminal courts for seven years. We have 40 female judges now in addition to me,” El-Gebaly told Daily News Egypt.
“We hope that women will be assigned as judges in the State Council and prosecution, so they can participate in all judicial posts just like men.”
The panelists discussed the law allocating a quota of 64 seats in the People’s Assembly (lower house) to women, and disagreed whether it would improve women’s status in the political arena or not.
Mervat El-Tallawy, former minister of insurance and social affairs, said, “The quota is a temporary solution until we develop the people’s culture and education so they can understand the importance of women’s [participation in the political arena] and change their previous misconceptions of women.”
In June 2009, Egypt approved a law providing 64 seats to women in the People’s Assembly, to be implemented in the coming general elections.
This law was issued in accordance to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Egypt had signed.
In the 2005 elections, only nine women were elected to parliament.
“In 1979, the 30 seats that were reserved for women were all taken by members of the National Democratic Party; don’t be surprised if the 64 seats are taken by the NDP in the coming elections as well,” Ebeid said.
However, the participants in the forum agreed that having the first female president wouldn’t happen any time soon.
Ebeid said, “The current atmosphere in Egypt doesn’t allow anyone to run for president, whether it’s a man or a woman.”
President Hosni Mubarak, 82, has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), the general voter turn-out in Egypt is low, among both men and women alike, because of distrust in the electoral process and lack of respect for political parties.
According to the data provided by International IDEA, only 28.1 percent of registered voters participated in the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt and only 23 percent of voters participated in the presidential election the same year.
“If I were to become president, which will never happen, the first decision I would make is to change the electoral laws and I would limit the presidency to two terms only,” said Hoda Badran, head of the Alliance of Arab Women
El-Mahdi believed that improving education and raising a generation that respects and values women and believes in equality and freedom of opinion and expression is our only hope in paving the way for the first Egyptian female president.
“We want a generation that believes that women are as good as men, sometimes even better,” she said.