Egypt’s Women Face Institutionalized Discrimination

Nina Kontevska

For the past two years, Egypt has been stuck in a protracted, tough post-revolutionary transition phase that is bound to last a while longer. Owning a continuously plunging economy triggered by – and further fueling – a larger political and social crisis, Egypt has seen countless protests (and abundant violence) since 2011, which are increasing once again.

Nearly one year after the revolution began, Islamists won over 75{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of seats in Egypt’s first lower-house parliamentary elections, with the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice party-led coalition winning 47{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd}. Thirty decades of single-party rule left no unified liberal opposition, allowing the Brotherhood, as the only organized political movement in Egypt with significant resources and experience – and with its vast international network and far-reaching ideological influence – to rise to power.

Liberals, women, the youth and minorities all participated in the revolution, with the single intent to establish a democratic system; in fact, they were the ones who spontaneously started it, and played crucial roles in overthrowing former President Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, pro-democratic parties fared poorly in the elections. In the initial composition of the parliament before it would be disbanded later, there were only eleven women among 805 members.

Following a year of stalled negotiations to form a committee that would draft the document, in December of 2012, Egypt approved a controversial constitution.  The referendum validating the constitution, drafted by a new Constituent Assembly, failed in Cairo and other mostly-secular urban centers.  Though the constitution was approved with 64{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} in favor, only 33{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of the electorate voted.

Mursi and his party had been hoping that adopting a permanent constitution and holding final elections in the Spring of 2013 would end the political crisis, and allow him to focus on the financial crisis. Yet, much of the transitional political turmoil revolved precisely around their proposed constitution, which was in the end written mostly by Islamists, and the draft of which was reportedly finished after the referendum. On December 26th 2012, the President signed the document into law.

A few days after signing it, Mr. Mursi commented that his government had made mistakes in writing the constitution, however, he did not offer to correct any ‘mistakes’. The treatise that mentions Islamic jurisprudence abundantly, stipulates that the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of law. Furthermore, it gives the Islamist-dominated upper-house parliament full legislative powers until a new lower chamber is elected – which it used to remove several judges from the  Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) who were either deemed loyalists of the previous regime, or liberal opponents of the new government.

The constitution that was adopted without consensus, with many flaws, lacks protection rights, and even allows for dangerous discriminatory policies against women and girls, and minorities, and threatens freedom of religion and free expression. Seen as having a negative effect on labor rights in general, the constitution could also be interpreted as allowing child labor in some cases. Indeed, the document indirectly allows for infringement upon some basic, universal human rights.

One of the biggest problems with the new constitution concerns women’s rights. Nehad Abul Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, sums it up:   ”The constitutional process was flawed from the start since the committee overseeing it was mostly comprised of men who view women’s role as either sex objects or servants.” Ms. Komsan is among the rare female heads of Egyptian women’s rights organizations. Within most women’s rights activist groups and even feminist organizations that formed out of the revolution – attempts that have mostly been initiated, supported, or protected by men – women have almost no leadership roles.

Instead of protecting women’s freedom and equality in political, education, and work opportunities, the constitution is seen as relegating women to stereotyped roles in laws affecting their political and professional lives – and also, meddling in affairs far out of line, affecting their social and private lives. All rights that it proscribes to women, the constitution stipulates, have to be in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence, and apparently, with the Brotherhood’s ideology.

While it has removed the best and retained the worst of regulations concerning women’s rights from Egypt’s previous constitution, the new one has left out a detrimental clause that criminalizes trafficking of female minors, and sets a minimum legal marriage age for girls. Activists have voiced concerns that this effectively allows for very young girls to be married and sold off into marriage by their families, a practice that is not uncommon in Egypt’s rural areas.

Women, badly disenfranchised and cheated on in the aftermath, stand to become the biggest losers in Egypt’s revolution, which, without a doubt, would not have succeeded without them.

The new document also fails to address long-held cultural and institutionalized attitudes that allow for the physical and psychological abuse, and sexual harassment and abuse of Egyptian women – and the legal impunity with which most such crimes are not brought to justice. Such abuse is on the rise and has become an instrumental political tool to punish, and scare women away from playing decisive part in shaping Egypt’s future. There had been cases of abuse of female protesters during the uprising, including subjugating women to infamous ‘virginity tests,’ and throughout the past two years.

Alarmingly, physical abuse and sexual abuse, including rape and even gang-rape, have been increasing over the past months at the many anti-constitution and anti-government demonstrations. Allegedly, the Muslim Brotherhood is responsible for these tactical attacks. The Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an organization established to fight sexual harassment of women near Tahrir Square, received nineteen reports of cases of violent attacks against women from a single day; another similar activist group reported five more cases from that same day, January 25th, perpetrated during protests marking the second anniversary of the revolution.

The authorities have often put the blame on the victims themselves, claiming that they had brought on the abuse by being dressed indecently, and so on. Criticizing law-enforcement complicity in many cases, Amnesty International has relayed accounts of victims who have alleged that police officers and state prosecutors put pressure on them to drop charges, allowing for further attacks.

Men have also faced abuse and harassment. And it isn’t just men who perpetrate discrimination against women. It is always disturbing to hear of women who perpetuate the discrimination against themselves. USA Today reported on such cases:

Activists agree that those who will bear the brunt of discrimination are women in poor and rural areas, where traditional societies are unforgiving to females. In the past few months, several unveiled women were victimized. In December, an Egyptian Coptic woman had her hair cut off and was thrown from a Cairo train by two women wearing the Islamic niqab, which covers the entire face with a slit for the eyes.

It was the third incident in one week as reported by the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper. In November, a teacher in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Luxor cut the hair of two female pupils as a punishment for not wearing hijabs, or head scarves. Disciplinary action was taken against her.

Despite the opposition, women, and men, have organized anti-harassment groups and rallies recently. Nevertheless, in a male-dominated society with a patriarchal culture, the few organizations and protests that have been organized to fully address the issue still have few allies across the political and social spectrum. As the new 2013-2014 editions of high-school textbooks had erased the picture of a prominent Egyptian pioneer activist for women’s rights because she was unveiled in the photo, it turns out that physical and sexual abuse against women is just one of the worst forms of the widespread, and unrelenting discrimination facing women in Egyptian society today.


Nina Kontevska is an M.A. graduate from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and a member of WIIS Israel.

This article was originally published on March 17, 2013 in the WIIS Israel blog.