Women’s Rights at Odds in Egypt’s Constitution Wars

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ANDRE PAIN / EPA

Egyptian women shout slogans in Cairo on Dec. 7, 2012, protesting President Mohamed Morsi's controversial decree that gave him sweeping powers

The political battle raging on Cairo’s streets is focused on President Mohamed Morsi’s autocratic actions in his efforts to rush through his draft constitution, but the anxiety of those on the street are equally based on the content of that constitution. One of the most bitterly divisive disputes is over the question of women’s rights in a post-Mubarak Egypt, and its resolution could have profound consequences not only for tens of millions of Egyptian women but also for the rights of women in post-revolution Tunisia and Libya. Thousands of women were at the forefront of the protest marches that poured into Tahrir Square in January 2011, and many expressed the view that in joining the struggle to bring down Mubarak, they were fighting also for their personal liberty.

But whether that goal is achieved could depend on how Egyptians vote on Dec. 15, and after that, on how judges interpret the resulting constitution. Many activists deem women’s rights a political litmus test that determines whether leaders are willing to put civil rights above religious edicts when the two are in conflict. For Egyptian women, the outcome of the constitutional dispute between Islamists and secularists could affect their ability to inherit property, to pass on citizenship to their children, to earn equal pay for equal work and even to make decisions independently of male family members. “The role of women in society has been a contentious issue since the start of the transition,” Isobel Coleman, director of the women-and-foreign-policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Dec. 4. The draft constitution, she argued, “does not proactively provide for equality.”

(PHOTOS: Islam’s Soft Revolution, Led by Cairo Women)

That, perhaps, is no surprise; nor does the U.S. constitution explicitly guarantee women’s equality. And only four women sit on Egypt’s 85-member constitutional committee, which has spent months locked in debate over the draft document. Of its 236 articles or paragraphs, Article 2 cites Islamic law as “the principle source of legislation,” while Article 4 gives the role of interpreting that law not to the courts, but to Islamic scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar University. Those scholars are not mentioned in Egypt’s 1971 constitution, which is now being replaced, although the old document does state that “the principles of Shari‘a are the main source of legislation.”

Women’s organizations have for months pressed to have an article that guaranteed women’s equality only insofar as it did not clash with Islamic values deleted from Egypt’s draft constitution. Now that sentence is gone — but any specific assurance of women’s equality has also been excised. In its place is a clause guaranteeing government-funded maternal and child health care (something most Americans don’t have), but those benefits are offered specifically in order “to preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family” and to balance “the duties of a woman towards her family and her work.” That, says Coleman, is “a not-so-subtle code for keeping women in a traditional role.” In response to the article, Human Rights Watch accused Morsi’s government of trying to control women’s decisions, saying, “The state’s role should be confined to ensuring equality and nondiscrimination, without interfering with a woman’s choices about her life.”

(MORE: Afghanistan: When Women Set Themselves on Fire)

Egypt’s constitutional battle is being watched closely not only by Egyptians but also by those whose fates may be influenced by its outcome: women in Tunisia and Libya. As in Egypt, Tunisia’s Islamist postrevolution government and Libya’s largely secular one are also charged with writing new constitutions. And in both cases, women’s rights have emerged as one of most contentious issues.

In Tunisia, huge protests erupted after Selma Mabrouk, a secular member of the constitutional-drafting committee, revealed on her Facebook page that the draft constitution categorized women as a “complement with the man in the family, and an associate to the man in the development of the country.” Those sentences were subsequently deleted, thanks to the furor. But since the parliament has yet to vote on the draft constitution, they could still sneak back in, Mabrouk told TIME on Friday. “There are many references to religion, which could constitute a problem for us,” she said by phone from Tunis. Islamic fervor has risen sharply since the revolution, she says, with several Tunisian kindergartens now having veiled girls as young as 3 or 4 years old. She says she expects a strong push by Islamists to insert religion into the constitution, adding, “We are remaining very, very alert.”

(PHOTOS: Egypt: Thousands Protest President Morsi’s Decree)

So, too, are women in Libya, where constitution writing has not yet begun. The country’s first-ever elected government was installed only last month and is still trying to wrest control over the country’s security from the armed militia groups.

Despite that, Libyan women’s organizations have already begun organizing around the future constitution, fearing they could face similar battles to Egypt and Tunisia. “We want equality and for our civilian and political rights to be recognized,” Alaa Murabit, head of the Voice of Libyan Women, a group in Tripoli, told TIME by phone. She says her organization has held discussions with women across the country, polling them for what they want in a new constitution.

Yet although women want equal rights, Murabit says Islam will certainly occupy a key role — especially since Islamists, who were jailed through decades of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship, have finally won political freedom. “Islam is not going anywhere, and the West needs to come to terms with the fact,” Murabit says. “If everybody keeps labeling the use of Islam as wrong, people will shut down and not have a dialog.” Instead, she says that Libyan women are pushing to have both an Islamic country and women’s equality when the country’s new constitution is finally debated. Until then, they will sit transfixed at the political protests just across the border, in Egypt.

MORE: An Interview with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi: ‘We’re Learning How to Be Free’

12 comments
AliBaba
AliBaba

the best favorite  TV series in middle east is a violent in the city

AliBaba
AliBaba

Obama administration has failed to understand the nature of middle east people which is violent and hatred  to the west

AliBaba
AliBaba

What is going on in Middle east  is a case study of American intelligent failure

AliBaba
AliBaba

American policy maker and the genus media support the Arab spring which turn Arab nuclear winter

AliBaba
AliBaba

article 4 the law is not interpreting   by court. it is interpreting  by  Azhar. it means that he abolished  legal system and give this power to religious scholars. it means the country  is  converting from secular to Islamic  state ruled by imam . Egypt will be worst case scenario in middle east.

breindrein
breindrein

I'm agnostic, got married in a standard christian wedding about 6 weeks ago. Before wedding the female minister gave us a talk. She told us that first there is God, then me (the husband) and then the wife regarding authority. So basically she said the the wife is below me in the god/man pecking order. While she was saying it I was thinking, 'ahh, sounds like a taleban wedding'. I can beat my wife with a stick when she is naughty. Anyway, neither of us took it very seriously. Just shows that the man having more authority than the wife still has a foothold in some christian circles too. Also, my wife would likely beat me with a stick if I looked at her funny.

Dachman
Dachman

What is often lost in Christianity is that men are called to lay down their lives for their wives just as Christ laid His life down. So yes women are called to submit to their husbands but men are called to live sacrificial lives pouring out grace and love upon their wives as Christ did.

ummabdulla
ummabdulla

What a biased article. The assumption is that Islam does not give women their rights, that all women are against an Islamic perspective of rights, that all 'women's organizations' want this Western view of women's rights... Could the author not find any Islamic women's organizations? Does she not think it's important to note that most women - like most men - in Egypt have voted for Islamic government? Or does she think that all those women - many of whom are highly educated - are incapable of thinking and speaking for themselves?

Dachman
Dachman

I think the women that voted for the current leadership expected things to go in a different direction, which is why they  are now protesting.

PlumbLine
PlumbLine like.author.displayName 1 Like

The cry of the human heart is for freedom...........you can see it on their faces, the pain of oppression..........one group of people lording it over another..........wrong ideology always enslaves people..........

..........Matthew 9:36But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.

JasonDStanfield
JasonDStanfield like.author.displayName 1 Like

Good luck love..... you will never get freedom for women, while at the same time honoring Islam. the two are incompatible.

Tamon
Tamon

@JasonDStanfield Good luck, LOVE?? What makes you think you can speak to a woman you don't even know that way??

Sexist pig!