On women in Egypt: Equality doesn’t mean justice

Rana Allam
8 Min Read
Rana Allam
Managing editor Rana Allam
Rana Allam

In late 2013, Thomson Reuters conducted a poll ranking Egypt the worst country among 22 Arab League states for women’s rights. The poll measured women’s status in six different categories. First, “Women in politics” calculated women’s civil representation and presence in high public positions. “Women in society” measured tradition and cultural expectations and limitations of women within the society. “Women in the economy” measured their participation and equal pay in the workforce.  “Women in the family” assessed women’s right to refuse or accept marriage, at what age, and their rights when separated. “Reproductive rights” evaluated access to healthcare and rights in childbearing. Finally, “Violence against women” assesses the levels of sexual assault and physical violence women suffer from and whether the offender is punished.

Also in 2013, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women published a report showing the most recent statistics of sexual harassment in Egypt. The study showed that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Within the context of marriage alone, over 28% of Egyptian women reported being victims of violence by their husbands, according to the 2009 report “Combating violence against women and children” by the Egyptian National Council for Women, published in partnership with USAID. This is the percentage of women who actually had the courage to come forward and report such abuse. One third of Egyptian women are victims of domestic violence performed by their husbands, but this is not counting those who are violated and assaulted by their own fathers, brothers and other family members.

Also in Egypt, even though there is a law against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the practice is still ongoing and 91% of women between the ages 15-49 are victims of it, according to the latest report issued on the subject in 2008.

Given this situation, and the horrid status of women’s rights, we must question if it’s enough to have this article in the constitution:

The State shall ensure the achievement of equality between women and men in all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

The State shall take the necessary measures to ensure the appropriate representation of women in the houses of representatives, as specified by Law. The State shall also guarantee women’s right of holding public and senior management offices in the State and their appointment in judicial bodies and authorities without discrimination.

The State shall protect women against all forms of violence and ensure enabling women to strike a balance between family duties and work requirements.

The State shall provide care to and protection of motherhood and childhood, female heads of families, and elderly and neediest women

I am not arguing that this article does not attempt to advance equality or that it, in any way, violates women’s rights. It is, indeed, a step forward from Egypt’s previous constitutions, but is it enough when the country is so plagued with violence against women, discrimination, degradation and humiliation?

In the 2011 parliament, which did not use the quota policy, only six women were elected which constituted less than 2% of the seats in a country that is 49% women.

Currently, there is not one state-run political or economical news publication managed by a woman – only cooking and fashion publications are reserved for women.

Left to itself, Egyptian culture and tradition would have an entirely male governance and leadership.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee stated that “the principle of equality sometimes requires State parties to take affirmative action in order to diminish or eliminate conditions which cause or help to perpetuate discrimination prohibited by the Covenant [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. For example, in a State where the general conditions of a certain part of the population prevent or impair their enjoyment of human rights, the State should take specific action to correct those conditions. Such action may involve granting for a time to the part of the population concerned certain preferential treatment in specific matters as compared with the rest of the population. However, as long as such action is needed to correct discrimination, in fact, it is a case of legitimate differentiation under the Covenant.”

Affirmative, or positive, action (or positive discrimination) is the policy of providing special treatment for a disadvantaged group in a society that suffers from discrimination. Egyptian women fall under this category. Although many prefer not to resort to such actions but in Egypt’s case, there is no other way but to enforce a certain culture to alleviate the status of women, if only to prevent violence against them, be it sexual or otherwise.

The issue here not so much about political power as it is about protection. For example, given the high sexual assault rate, Egyptian women should be allowed to carry self defence equipment and not run the risk of being jailed for having pepper spray in their handbags, as is the case now.

With such high rates of domestic violence, there should be a department in the police force dedicated to handling such matters, and they should be well trained to a certain mindset when handling such issues. The case now, as reported by many women, is that when they file a complaint in the police station against their abusive husbands, the police officer contacts the abuser to “come get his wife”, and in many cases punish the women for such a “transgression” against the “man of the house”.

Similar scenarios happen in courtrooms, where chauvinistic judges are a norm and women rarely win cases against their husbands or ex-husbands. Physical abuse is usually treated as “normal” by most men (be they lawmen or not), and beating up one’s wife is part of an unspoken social contract. In such a society, how can women survive without Affirmative Action, and a constitution that imagines we can have the same laws as, for example, Norway?

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