Spring Without Flowers: Are Women Being Left Behind By Egypt’s Transition?

Egyptian women hold less than 2 percent of the seats in parliament

It is not a secret that Egypt’s democratic transition in general is hardly moving forward, slowed down and thrown off course by a seemingly endless series of challenges ranging from military’s failure in running the transitional phase, the purposeful undermining of the civil society, to the misbehavior of political Islamists, who seem determined to curb individual freedoms and women’s rights. Amidst the rapid changes and challenges, women are struggling to secure their space and prove the importance of their role — not only participating in — but also leading the process of building up the institutional infrastructure that is needed for democracy to flourish.

I cannot claim that the marginalization of women is purposeful, because rationally the government cannot brush aside more than fifty percent of the population and still claim to be establishing democracy. Rather, I attribute continued discrimination against women and their underrepresentation in politics to the patriarchal nature of Egyptian society. Against the backdrop of cultural norms that support gender inequality, women are being systematically blocked from participation in decision-making and political participation. Egyptian women are currently stuck between two large stones. The first is the patriarchal mind-set that traps women in stereotypical female roles and stigmatizes any woman who tries to break out of this mold. The second is the rise of political Islamists who encourage this patriarchal mentality and are wrongly interpreting religion to justify the social and political marginalization of women in the name of Islam. However, Egyptian women are heroically struggling to push back the two stones and claim the space to which they are entitled as an essential force behind Egypt’s spring.  Egypt’s next leaders would be rise to recognize the truth: Spring cannot come without flowers, and thus democracy cannot be achieved without women.

The infrastructure for democracy is forged through three main channels: parliamentary elections, constitution drafting, and presidential elections. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, women insisted on being represented, but their parties rather than empowering them to play this role, merely exploited them to enhance their own images. Even in the most liberal parties, women were mistreated as badly as their peers in Islamist parties. Islamist parties put women at the very bottom of their lists and some of them refused to mention even the names or ages of their female candidates. Similarly, liberal parties never allowed their women to run on the top of the list under, claiming that  Egypt’s patriarchal society would not tolerate such a bold challenge to traditional gender hierarchies. I ran for parliament and my own party forced me to relinquish my place at the top of the list for a much less qualified man, reducing my rank to the second professional on the list. The placement of women on party lists was largely symbolic, as their low ranking made it virtually impossible for female candidates to secure seats that were allocated on a top-down basis. As a result, women ended up winning less than 2 percent of the seats in parliament.

While forming the constituent assembly, the parliament – heavily dominated by Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood – failed to form a committee that accurately reflected the true social representation of Egypt’s diverse interest groups, including women, who were given a paltry six seats on the 100-member assembly. In a recent statement, the National Council on Women Rights condemned the underrepresentation of women on the constituent assembly in particular and in political life overall as "very humiliating." The Egyptian Women’s Union, a new group aimed at defending and uniting Egyptian women, has joined other women’s organizations to demand that women be given at least 30 percent of the assembly seats; however, their proposal has been completely ignored – even as the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has caved to pressure to replace several Islamist members with liberals. The severe underrepresentation of women on the constituent assembly constitutes a threat not only to women rights but to all Egyptians, because the marginalization of any interest group from the constitutional process will jeopardize the success and integrity of the democratic transition as a whole.

With the presidential election rapidly approaching next month, there is one brave candidate – Bothaina Kamel – who is heroically running as Egypt’s first female presidential contender. Last week, she told me she insists on continuing her fight until the very end although her chances for victory are extremely low. “We are breaking the taboo and paving the way for generations of women to come,” she told me. I admire her for her optimism and persistence and I hope her struggle will inspire Egypt’s next generation to respect women more than their predecessors.  

I myself went to the notary public office last week to submit my signature endorsing Bothaina Kamel’s presidential candidacy. Under the presidential election law, eligible candidates are required to gather at least 30,000 signatures from fifteen different governorates, or the support of 30 members of parliament.  I was surprised to see a young man at the office who was also registering his support for Bothaina. I asked him why he chose to give his signature to her, among all of the male candidates running. He explained that ten years from now, he wants to proudly tell his kids that he supported the first woman presidential candidate for in Egypt’s history. His words warmed my heart and reaffirmed my hope that Egypt will eventually see a more democratic future.

Dalia Ziada is the Executive Director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and the founding chairwoman of the al-Ghad Party’s Freedom and Rights Committee. She was a parliamentary candidate for the Adl Party in the 2011 People’s Assembly elections.  

Photo Credit: Getty

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