Women's safety and participation

I attended a day-long meeting in Cairo yesterday, facilitated by the NGO Safer World, addressing women’s safety and political participation in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The meeting was attended by activists as well as a few government representatives.

Although the situation varies quite a bit from one country to the other -- in Yemen the context is much more rural, for example, than in Egypt, and geographic isolation plays a big part in women’s security and participation -- there were many similarities. In all three countries, women are the victims of violence -- and of an ideological discourse that blames them for that very violence -- that intimidates them away from the public and political sphere.  Also in all three countries, women’s groups are extremely frustrated and angry with the Islamist groups and parties that have come to power since the uprisings, who they describe as “dictatorial” and accuse of wanting to undo progress on women’s rights. 

In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Islamist members of parliament and preachers have been saying grotesque things about women who were victims of gang rapes in Tahrir. The FJP has condemned some of the recent statements -- but only at the prodding of journalists, and even as some of its members have also expressed similar sentiments. 

President Morsi’s office sent a young female advisor on human rights and women’s rights to the meeting. She responded to the indignant questions of the activists with platitudes about the Freedom and Justice Party’s desire to listen before acting and the need not to demonize each other and to work together. In response to a question about the FJP’s position on lowering the age of marriage for girls, she said that the party had never advocated doing so and that there were “extreme” positions on all sides -- while some Islamists call for lowering the marriage age (to as low as 9), non-Islamists call for defending homosexuality. The claim prompted one activist to ask: “Why are you always bringing up homosexuality when we’re discussing women’s rights?”

The presidential advisor also noted President Morsi’s recent Women’s Initiative, a vague and hastily put together initiative that does not include any of the country’s prominent feminist groups and that at this point seems to be little more than Facebook page. The fact that this initiative took place just days after the FJP caught flak for its strongly worded dissent from a recent declaration by the UN Commission on the Status of Women does not seem coincidental. 

“Where can there be a meeting point between civil society and government?” a moderator asked. I’m not optimistic about that meeting point being found in Egypt today, especially as the Shura Council (which was elected by 10% of the population, remember, and whose original mandate did not include passing laws) prepares an extremely restrictive NGO law that seems designed to bring civil society to heel. 

It’s worth noting that it is not only Islamists who have misogynistic attitudes. The army also victimized and marginalized women. Non-Islamist parties’ platforms do not include measures to curtail women’s rights, nonetheless they do very little to empower women within their ranks and tend to view women’s rights as a means to criticize the Brotherhood. Women were under-represented in all leadership positions and in politics under Mubarak, and they were the victims of sexual and political violence. These are not new phenomena. 

That said the FJP’s record on women is abysmal. An article criminalizing gender discrimination against women was removed from the Islamist-drafted constitution; Islamists have consistently opposed a quota for women in elections; on the question of women’s safety, Islamists employ a paternalistic discourse in which they call for women to be protected (and controlled) by individual men, rather than guaranteed a simple, gender-blind right to be visible, active participants in cities, societies and political events. 

The FJP also does not trust and does not consult with the National Women’s Council (the government body established to deal with women’s rights) or with any of the country’s well-regarded, vocal feminist organizations. Yes, some of these organization are "elite," some had contact with Suzanne Mubarak (they could hardly afford not to) and some took foreign funding to promote largely empty women's empowerment programs (what does it mean to encourage women's political participation in the context of rigged elections?). But the vast majority of these organizations have been doing serious and ground-breaking work for decades; some activists put themselves in extraordinary personal danger to protect female protesters these days. Any initiative to discuss or address women's rights that excludes the country's seasoned activists and NGOs is bankrupt. 

And any political party that is serious about women’s safety will speak out strongly and consistently against all violence against women -- regardless of its political context -- and will condemn any attempt to blame the victim. It it will also support a quota, which experiences around the world have proven is one of the only ways to initiate large numbers of women into political life -- and which was used in Tunisia, for example, ensuring a significant female representation in that country’s constituent assembly.