CAIRO: During the Maat foundation for Peace, Development, and Human Rights’ inaugural conference for the Wosool project held last week, speakers advocated the “empowerment of women for governance in the Egyptian village.”
The project’s goal is to increase the number of female members of local county councils, whose numbers had decreased over the years and had been very slowly increasing in the past decade’s elections.
Speakers from different associations asserted that patriarchal mindsets must change so that Egyptian women can pursue political careers in government councils.
According to Maat Foundation’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Ayman Oqail, recent statistics show that there are currently 2335 women-members of county councils out of 35,000 members all over the country.
“International agreements have paid special attention to the affairs of women from the countryside,” said Hoda Badran, CEO of the Alliance for Arab Women. “They were overlooked for a very long period of time despite the fact that they are a main and vital component of Egyptian society.”
Oqail said that women are segregated in the Egyptian political arena. He added that project Wosool aims to help women, especially those in the more rural counties, get involved in their local affairs and decisions by attempting to enhance their political expertise through increased awareness and instruction.
In light of the Egyptian government’s recent shift towards a more decentralized system, decision-making processes have become more localized in governorates and counties.
“Project Wosool is a natural extension of Maat Foundation’s work towards enhancing democracy and local governance,” said Oqail. “The small number of women participating in local councils does not allow for a fully-functional decentralized system.”
Wedad Hashad, a member of the Helwan county council, said that women are needed on local councils, as they are more accessible than men when it comes to addressing certain issues.
Badran said, however, that male-oriented nature of the culture is a major challenge that prevents many women from participating and realizing their full potential in the “political game.”
Ali Al-din Helal, political science professor at Cairo University, and a member of the Shoura Council, said that Egyptian laws do not discriminate against women in any way.
“The gender gap that exists does not rely on the law or the constitution, which are against discrimination,” Helal said. “But on a system of values and ideas, based on a male-dominated culture that perpetuates discrimination against women.”
He added that the constitution is applied with such discriminatory values that impede women’s full participation in society and politics alike. Helal said that such values are widespread, especially in rural communities in Upper Egypt.
Some people however, thought otherwise.
Salah Ismail, a participant in the Helwan county council, said that women are not elected because many of them do not work hard enough as council members and prove unworthy of their positions.
Badran, however, said that it is because political parties do not put as much effort into training women in comparison to men.
She explained that women in the countryside do not have the necessary resources, skills, or support that are easily available for male candidates and their electoral campaigns. She said that in order for women to become better council members, they require better instruction and training, as most of them are fairly new in the political domain and feel intimidated by expertise of male members.
“All these concepts of gender and empowerment and so on are very foreign to the Egyptian streets,” Badran told Daily News Egypt. “They look at human rights for women as something for the elites, and we have to change that, and the culture cannot change unless we talk to people in the language they understand. Sometimes we use different strategies to change culture, you can put pressure on people.”
Badran said that the law could be a useful tool to help change mindsets. She used the law that forced people to put on their seat belts when driving as an example saying “ we did not have to raise awareness before we issued that law.” By time, she said, it turned into a habit.
Helal said that education is also one of the main solutions to overcome such issues, since over 40 percent of women in rural areas are illiterate, and only 5 percent have university degrees.
“It’s a multi-sector process that has to happen to change the culture,” Badran said, adding that transparency between women candidates and citizens is also an important key in the process.
The Wosool project is funded by the Australian government, and is one of several projects the Maat Foundation is undertaking to increase citizens’ awareness of the different aspects of political and social life in Egypt.
The Wosool project is expected to go on for several years and has three main phases. The first phase is expected to raise awareness for issues of human rights and women’s constitutional rights, the second is concerned with providing guidance on electoral processes, and the third focuses on supporting women candidates by opening up communication channels between them and their village locals and voters.