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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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