31 October 2010
Next month’s upcoming legislative elections will see a phenomenon unprecedented in decades: a substantial women’s presence in the quota system. In March this year it was announced that women would be allocated 64 out of a new total of 518 parliamentary seats, an increase from the previous 454. In 1979, 30 seats had been allocated for women in the Peoples’ Assembly (PA) and seven in the Shura Council—the lower and upper houses of Egypt’s Parliament respectively. In 1986, however, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that allocating a quota for women was unconstitutional.
Women defend their right
Women began making an active contribution to politics in 1881 with the Orabi Revolution, when two women’s groups were formed: Helwan and Misr al-Fallah (Egypt of the Peasants). The 1919 Revolution, however, ushered in a new era in terms of women’s contribution to the politics of Egypt. Hundreds of women took to the streets of Cairo to defend Egypt’s right to gain independence from the British. On 16 March 1923, Hoda Shaarawi and other women established the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) demanding women’s right to education and a vote, as well as reform of the Personal Status Law.
Article 3 of the 1923 Constitution stipulated that “Citizens are entitled to political and civil rights without discrimination on race, language or religious lines.” Following the promulgation of the Constitution, Mounira Thabet sued the prime minister for preventing women from enjoying their legitimate political rights.
In 1925 the EFU called upon the parliamentary speaker to amend the election law to guarantee women’s political rights. A compartment for women was allocated in parliament as a result of the heavy pressure exerted by women’s groups. In 1926, Hoda Shaarawi called for reform of the Personal Status Law to limit polygamy.
Women’s political consciousness witnessed remarkable progress during the 1940s with the formation of women’s political parties. Fatma Nemat Rashed established a party named al-Hizb al-Nissaa’i al-Watani (The Women’s National Party) in 1942 to advocate the attainment of gender equality and the appointment of women in all State posts.
In 1941 the Bint al-Nil (Daughter of the Nile) Party was formed. It called for granting voting rights to women, and members of the party staged a sit-in inside the Journalists’ Syndicate to press for their demands. In 1951 they held a sit-in in parliament with the same purpose.
In the aftermath of the 1952 Revolution, the Free Officers decided to close the EFU and the Bent al-Nil Party. Both the National Union (established in 1956) and the Arab Socialist Union (founded in 1961) had a section for women. The 1956 Constitution guaranteed women’s right to vote and contest parliamentary elections. Article 31 stipulated that Egyptians had equal rights regardless of sex, race or religion. Law 73 of 1956 gave Egyptians aged 18 and over full-fledged political rights.
Elected or appointed
The 1957 elections saw the first election of women as MPs: two were elected, Rawya Attiya and Amina Shukri, one winning a seat in Giza and the other in Alexandria. Until 1979 the number of female MPs never exceeded eight, but Law 21 for 1979 allocated 30 seats for women in the PA, upon which 35 women gained seats in the 1979 general elections. Then the local governance law was amended to grant women 10 to 20 seats in the municipalities.
Following the 1986 ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court to annul Law 21 of 1979 on the grounds that it contradicted the Constitution, the number of female MPs declined. In the 1987 elections, 14 women won and four were appointed. In 1990, ten female candidates emerged victorious. The share of women further deteriorated in the 1995 elections when no more than five female candidates won. In 2005, there were three successful female candidates.
This year the PA approved the law stipulating a women’s quota of 64 seats in parliament. Despite the fear that some could challenge the constitutionality of the new law, others are more optimistic on the grounds that constitutional article 62 guarantees a minimum number of seats for women in both the upper and lower houses.
Impressive report card
Since the time when Egyptian presidents were guaranteed the right to nominate ten MPs and a third of Shura Council members, they have been keen to bring a collection of appointed members, that is that they have always included Copts, women, experts and young people.
A quick look at the work of women MPs during the last parliamentary round brings to light an impressive record. Even though her argument was overruled and Parliament voted with an overwhelming majority to go ahead with the pig cull in 2009—arguably to stem the tide of a spreading H1N1 epidemic commonly termed swine flu—Egyptian history will never forget the role played by Siyada Ilhamy in opposing the cull and defending the right of the pig farmers. Georgette Qillini vociferously criticised the parliamentary committee that investigated the Christmas Eve crime at Nag Hammadi in which six Copts and a Muslim passer-by were killed as they left church following Midnight Mass; the committee claimed that the crime carried no sectarian dimension. For her part, Ibtissam Habib spared no effort to promote the call for the passing of the long-awaited unified law for building places of worship; while Zeinab Radwan staunchly defended women’s rights against reactionary forces in society.