Women Demand a Say in Egypt's Constitution

As the deadline approaches this week to name the members of a committee tasked with writing Egypt's first post-revolutionary constitution, women look likely to be sidelined, a bad omen for the full protection of their rights in the post-Mubarak era. Although they were key participants in the Tahrir Square protests, often on the front lines, facing beatings by security forces as well as humiliating "virginity tests," Egypt's women won less than 2% of the seats in recent parliamentary elections. That has put them at a distinct disadvantage as Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament meets this weekend to elect the 100 members of a Constituent Assembly which will write Egypt's next National Charter. This foundational document will delineate, among other things, the place of Islamic law in the constitution, the role of the military and the status of Egypt's women and minorities.

As Mona Makram Ebeid, a longtime advocate for women's rights in Egypt and a former member of Parliament, told me in Cairo in January, the constitution will be the key guarantor of women and minority rights in a future Egypt. It is essential, she added, that the group drafting the document reflect the diversity of Egypt's many political, social, cultural, and gender views.

Liberal Egyptian women's groups have demanded at least a 30 percent representation in the Constituent Assembly -- a modest request, considering Egyptian women make up 49% of college graduates and half the population (49.8 %). But even this hoped-for minority representation for women in the assembly looks dubious. Last weekend, Egypt's members of Parliament, more than seventy percent of whom are Islamists, voted on the allotment of the Assembly. They determined it should be comprised of 50 lawmakers from Parliament and 50 people from outside Parliament, including members of civil society groups and public figures. Given the miniscule number of women MPs, it's highly unlikely the body drafting Egypt's next constitution will include anywhere close to 30 women.

While there's no reason to think that smart, open-minded men can't also push for women's rights, history has shown that women are the best advocates of their cause. Unfortunately, the current battle over the makeup of the Constituent Assembly appears to be a harbinger of future challenges to the rights and status of Egyptian women. Although democratic strides have been made since the overthrow of Mubarak, there are signs that the Islamist-led Parliament -- elected following the collapse of the Mubarak regime -- plans to advocate a far more conservative social agenda, one at odds with many of the social gains made by Egyptian women in the last ten years.

Unlike in Tunisia, where women enjoy a unique degree of equality in the work force by Arab-world standards, Egyptian women do not yet account for a third of the labor force, according to the World Bank. Nevertheless, over the past ten years, new family laws enacted with the encouragement of former first lady Suzanne Mubarak have given Egyptian women greatly expanded personal rights. Under personal status laws introduced in 2000 and 2005, women can now obtain a divorce without the consent of their husband by returning the dowry provided at the time of the marriage. Children can remain under the legal custody of the mother until they reach 15 (previously it was age 10 for boys and 12 for girls), and women can now pass on Egyptian nationality to children born of non-Egyptian fathers.

These laws have been very unpopular among conservative segments of Egyptian society, who have blamed them for soaring divorce rates and the breakdown of the family. During Egypt's parliamentary elections, the two main Islamists parties, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the ultraconservative Nour party, which together account for more than 70% of Parliament, attacked the Mubarak-era personal status laws as an assault on family unity, as well as a contradiction to Islamic (sharia) law. Freedom and Justice Party MP Azza al Garf, one of four Islamist women representatives in Parliament, told the press that rolling back liberal family laws would be among the new Parliament's priorities.

The FJP used International Women's Day on March 8 as an occasion to begin their assault. They went after Egypt's National Council for Women, an organization formerly chaired by Suzanne Mubarak aimed at empowering women, which advocated for the liberal family legislation. The Council has been criticized by secular figures for its close association to the former ruling National Democratic Party. But the FJP attacked what it says was the Council's support of campaigns to undermine the sanctity of marriage -- a veiled reference to the personal status laws. Attendees called for the Council to be renamed the National Council for the Family in order, as the FJP put it, to "truly express the complementary roles of men and women." Member of Parliament and FJP leader Hoda Youssef underscored that a woman's role in society stems from her role within the family and criticized school curricula that encourages girls to take on more male-oriented jobs, at the expense of their care-taking role in the family.

Liberal Egyptian women clearly have their work cut out for them if they hope to stymie efforts to limit their rights and choices. The next six months will witness their first test as members of the Constituent Assembly draft the constitution before putting it to a national referendum. The FJP has pledged not to push for more Islamic law in the national charter -- saying it seeks to retain article two of the previous constitution which declares Islamic jurisprudence to be the principle source of legislation. But the more conservative Salafi Nour party has demanded that the constitution be based solely on Islamic law, and their influence in the drafting process remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Egypt's friends abroad, including the United States, should use whatever influence they have to encourage the drafters of Egypt's new constitution to safeguard women's rights and freedoms as full citizens of the Republic. In a recent speech at the International Crisis Group, Hillary Clinton said, "Egypt's revolution was won by men and women working together, and its democracy will only thrive by men and women working together."

It's a lesson that a newly democratic Egypt may have to learn the hard way. Let's hope the hard way doesn't entail Egypt's women marching back to Tahrir Square to foment their own revolution.

Kate Seelye is the vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. and a former NPR correspondent covering the Middle East.