Egypt’s busy bee

03-08-2016 12:05 PM

Mervat Ayoub





They call her the Busy Bee. For her indefatigable efforts at whatever task she undertook, Moushira Khattab rightly earned the nickname ‘the Busy Bee’. She was Egypt’s Minister of State for Family and Population from 2009 to 2011, Secretary-General of the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) from 1999 until 2010, and before that Assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  She was an active member of Egypt’s diplomatic corps and served as Egypt’s ambassador to several countries.

On 19 July Egypt’s Prime Minister Sherif Ismail announced the official nomination of Moushira Khattab, PhD, human and women rights activist, and former politician and diplomat, for the post of UNESCO Director General. The elections for the post in which the Bulgarian Irina Bokova is still sitting will be held early 2017. Ms Khattab will be running against nominees of other world States, including the Qatari Hamad al-Qawari who is currently a royal advisor on cultural affairs in his country, and was before culture minister. Ms Khattab and Mr Qawari are the only Arab nominees for the top UNESCO post.


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Illustrious diplomacy

Moushira Khattab graduated from Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science in 1967. One year later, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after passing the annual competition the ministry holds to select individuals eligible for diplomatic work. She started her career as diplomatic attaché and served in Egypt’s diplomatic missions in Australia, Hungary, Austria and the United Nations in New York and Vienna.

Ms Khattab served as Egypt’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia during its peaceful transformation in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, and later as ambassador of Egypt to both Slovakia and the Czech Republic from 1992 until 1994. She then became Egypt’s first ambassador to South Africa; this was during the Mandela era. She remained in office until 1999, and was in the same year awarded the Order of Good Hope by the President of the Republic of South Africa.

Ms Khattab’s diplomatic career witnessed significant achievements. She succeeded in consolidating Egypt’s relations with various southern African States, especially South Africa. She had been a strong advocate for strengthening these relations and establishing open dialogue with African States basing on common interests and mutual benefits, and putting aside rivalry.

Khattab ended her diplomatic career with a brief spat as Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for International Cultural Relations.


Criminalising FGM and underage marriage

From 1999 and until 2010, Ms Khattab directed her endeavours to a field in which she served with passion and with which her name became intractably linked: the field of women’s and child rights. Appointed Secretary-General of NCCM in 1999 Ms Khattab took the local battle for women’s rights to unprecedented heights.

Eradication of the deeply entrenched social tradition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) took top place on her NCCM agenda. She cooperated with universities, research centres and education institutions to prove that FGM was a practice that worked irreparable damage, physically and emotionally, to women; in 2008, the practice was officially declared as a crime by the Egyptian Criminal Law.

She also launched a national campaign against early marriage, and succeeded in bringing about an amendment in the Civil Status Law to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 years. In 2010, when she was Minister of State for Family and Population, Ms Khattab took legal proceedings against two maazoun—a maazoun is a marriage notary—in the Delta town of Zifta for having concluded marriage contracts for 364 women who were under 18. The maazouns were prosecuted and penalised.

Under Ms Khattab the NCCM founded the first Egyptian unit to combat child trafficking. In cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration, a shelter was established for victims of children trafficking. She coordinated and established several programmes for rehabilitation of street children and victims of child labour, and for their integration in the education system.

Ms Khattab staunchly worked to amend the Egyptian Child Law. In 2008, an amended law required the State to ensure decent education for all without discrimination. The new law criminalised the denial of the right for education to any child.

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Answer to girls’ education

Her deep conviction that education is pivotal to achieve sustainable development led Ms Khattab to spearhead, orchestrate and participate in numerous initiatives and programmes that concerned education reform, especially for the poor and marginalised. She worked to foster a culture that acknowledges the right of every citizen to the highest level of education. She formed a specialised sub-committee that included representatives of the Cairo and Helwan Universities, as well as al-Azhar and the Church to review school curricula at the primary stage, in order to eradicate all trends of discrimination and prejudice from textbooks and teaching methods.

Female education topped Ms Khattab’s agenda throughout her term with NCCM. In cooperation with UNICEF, UNESCO, and other UN organisations as well as USAID, she established the project of the one-classroom community schools for girl education in Egypt. This was a first in the country, and it succeeded with flying colours. It answered the needs of girls and women in an education programme that provides them with the opportunity to attend to their household responsibilities even as they go to school. In communities where family is the top priority of women, on account of which many girls have to drop out of regular school or miss out on schooling altogether, community schools were a godsend. The programme was launched in 2002 in villages and hamlets in the southern governorates of Sohag, Assiut, Minya, Beni Sweif, Giza, and Fayoum, and in the west Delta governorate of Beheira. The NCCM collaboration with seven regional NGOs led to the opening of 1063 community schools till 2005; enrolment reached 27,784 students of whom 75 per cent were girls. Dropout rate was zero; the programme was scaled up to move to other parts of Egypt and is still thriving.



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Tackling social ills

From 2009 until 2011 Dr Khattab held the post of Minister of Family and Population. Throughout this period she continued to address the issues of birth control, FGM, and social practices that involved oppression of women and curtailment of their rights. Among these were the issues of Internet-arranged marriages; and the unofficial, non-registered urfi marriages where women forego legal backing for their rights as wives or mothers, and children are in many cases denied by their fathers. She also tackled the problem of the marriage of underage girls to much older Arab men in exchange for attractive ‘dowry’ sums paid by the men to the women’s fathers; most of these women ended up slaves for their husbands’ families once they were taken to the men’s home countries. The answer, proposed by female MPs, was that an ‘insurance’ sum of money be placed at the woman’s disposal to ensure she could return home safely if conditions became intolerable for her in her marriage. But this was rejected by Islamists who saw it as empowering women beyond their sharia-stipulated rights, and some liberals who considered it as condoning trafficking in women.

Dr Khattab earned her nickname of the “Busy Bee Minister” during her time as Minister of Family and Population, for her incessant field trips to Egyptian villages and towns in her battle against Egypt’s population explosion.

In 2010 Khattab founded and chaired an Ethics and Cultural Values committee whose work focused on addressing religious-based gender discrimination and other traditional negative values, and to spread a culture based on respecting human rights and the rule of the law. The committee included representatives of al-Azhar and the Mufti, the Church as well as media professionals, intellectuals and representatives from universities, the Ministry of Education and other ministries, and NGOs.



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Criticised by Islamists

Moushira Khattab holds a PhD on the rights of the child from Cairo University. Since obtaining her doctorate degree and retiring from public service in 2011, Ms Khattab has been a regular contributor to several renowned academic and research institutions worldwide. Following a brief university teaching experience in Cairo, she has been visiting professor at Wellesley College in Switzerland, and University of Foreigners in Perugia, Italy, as well as researcher and lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.  

Her outstanding work and achievements won her international awards. Apart from the 1999 South Africa Order of Good Hope, she was granted the Commendatore of the Order of Merit by the President of the Italian Republic in 2007, the International Women of Courage Award by the US Department of State in 2008, and the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2010.

Throughout her career, Ms Khattab frequently came under fire from Islamists on account of her liberal views and stances. She was harshly criticised for her endorsement of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Egypt ratified in 1981 with reservations on articles that run counter to Islamic sharia. Her battles against FGM, girl marriages and the rights of women earned her intensecensure.

Ms Khattab fiercely guarded her privacy. It is almost impossible to stumble on any detail of her private life; that is, except for a slip of tongue which again brought on Islamist anger. She said that in her early youth she had a passion for dancing and dreamed of joining the Reda Folkloric Troupe which in the 1970s enthralled Egypt with an enchanting comeback for Egyptian folk dance. She did not, and Egypt gained an exceptional rights advocate.



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Watani International

3 August 2016



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