Ensure Women Equal Role in Elections, Reform

Amended Constitution Sets Process in Motion, But Fears of Being Left
March 28, 2011

(Cairo) - Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should ensure that women are equal participants in reshaping the country, Human Rights Watch said today. As Egypt heads into parliamentary and presidential elections after the constitutional referendum, the transitional government needs to ensure women's security and participation on an equal basis as both candidates and voters.

Women were excluded from the official body that formulated the amendments to the constitution that were approved on March 19, 2011, with 77.2 percent of the vote. The amendments establish a term limit for future presidents, provide for the appointment of a deputy president, and call for judicial oversight of elections. Women had protested a provision implying that only men would be eligible for the presidency.

"It is unacceptable for a constitution that is supposed to allow for a transition toward democracy and a new Egypt to even give the possibility of excluding women from public office," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East and North Africa women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "After women fully participated in the movement to oust President Hosni Mubarak, it is offensive to suggest that a woman cannot be president."

As amended, Article 75 of the constitution requires that the president "shall not be married to a non-Egyptian." The ambiguity over the language in this provision suggests to some constitutional judges that women may be excluded from running for the presidency.  Previously, this article read that the president should be an Egyptian born to Egyptian parents with no mention of the spouse's nationality.

Tahani el Gebaly, vice president of the constitutional committee "attested to the danger in article 75 of the constitution [...] and requested that the constitutional committee issue a written statement to confirm whether [the president] is an Egyptian male or female."

The amendments  contained no reference to equality for women, a basic right also not mentioned in the current constitution.

"The constitutional committee has an obligation to make its intentions clear on article 75," Khalife said.

Egyptian women's status under the law and in practice has improved somewhat in recent decades, for example through improved - although still unequal - access to divorce and the appointment of a few women judges. But equality for Egyptian women is still far from reality.

Egyptian women's political representation remains low. Only 18 women serve on the 264-member Consultative Council, Parliament's upper chamber.  Of the 31 government ministries, only one is lead by a woman – the ministry of international cooperation and planning. Women's membership and representation in political parties is weak, and representation on municipal councils remains lower than three percent.

Under Egyptian law, 64 seats out of 444 in the People's Assembly, Parliament's lower chamber, are reserved for women. The constitutional amendments did not alter this quota. The constitutional committee is reviewing a number of laws related to the parliamentary elections, including the quota.

Women who participate in public life risk harassment in the streets. For example, on International Women's Day, March 8, a group of men beat, verbally abused, and sexually harassed women marching in Tahrir square for women's equality.

One of the women marchers told Human Rights Watch, "The attackers, around 50, started hitting us with their hands on our shoulders and heads. I got hit badly on my shoulder." Another told Human Rights Watch, "The men shouted at us, ‘You are not Egyptians [...] Better for you to go home and feed your babies.'"

Some men accused the women marchers of advocating "Western" principles, and criticized their dress or behavior. Another woman told Human Rights Watch, "They formed a circle around us and I fell to the ground. Someone cut my leggings and reached their hands up to my private parts and my breasts. Someone slapped me on the face and another hit me with a metal instrument. I was hospitalized for seven days."

Soldiers who observed the incident intervened to break up the mob. One woman told Human Rights Watch, "[The army] asked us why we are demonstrating now, that this is not the right time. They told us that we were wrong for coming out to demonstrate."

"If the International Women's Day attacks are any sign of what is to come, women's ability to participate in political life may be at risk," Khalife said. "As Egypt moves toward elections, officials need to provide protection for women who wish to demonstrate publicly, and ensure that anyone attacking peaceful protesters is held to account."