Egypt's gov't and opposition vie for favor of women

Feminism is the new buzz word in Egypt's political campaign just days before the parliamentary elections.

November 23, 2010 21:48
3 minute read.

Egypt 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Feminism is the latest card being played by both government and opposition in Egypt, just days before the parliamentary elections set for November 28.

Egyptian-born Sunni cleric Youssef Al-Qardawi appears to have sparked the spat after he made an uncharacteristic statement urging woman to get involved.

"Women must leave their isolation," Qardawi told a gathering of Islamist female candidates this week. "They must enter the election campaign to fight the promiscuous and secular women who allege to lead feminist activity."

Qardawi, who is currently based in Qatar, called on Egyptians to support female candidates more than males, "because women in this society are weaker."

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was swift in condemning Qardawi's statements. On its official website, the NDP accused him of looking down at women.

"Qardawi's statements patronize the roll of women in public life and complement the discriminatory worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood as expressed on its website," the NDP statement read.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned as a political party in Egypt since 1954, but party members can run as independent candidates.

Qardawi, for his part, denied that endorsement of women candidates contradicted the Islamic principle of preventing feminine custodianship over men. He said that the proportion of women candidates was too small for any risk of woman dominance.

Only 9 women won seats in the Egyptian parliament in the last elections five years ago. They represented just 2% of the total seats. But a newly introduced quota system for women will change that following next week's elections. 

Wafaa' Mashhour, a candidate linked with the Muslim Brotherhood vying for the woman's seat in the southern governorate of Asyut, said that her party supported women whereas the NDP has been dropping woman candidates from its list. 

"Many women have represented the Muslim Brotherhood since the year 2000," she told The Media Line. "If it were not for government restrictions, the number of women candidates would multiply."

Mashhour said that 14 women were running on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections. She bemoaned the government crackdown on Brotherhood candidates, citing arrests, threats and prevention of public campaigning.

"In my first public appearance, the electricity to my microphone was suddenly cut five minutes into the speech," she said. "This was clearly intentional. The gathering had been going on for two hours prior to my arrival." 

The new quota system, legislated by President Husni Mubarak's NDP in 2009, added 32 constituencies comprising two seats each to Egypt's election map. The legislation does not proportionally change the make-up of parliament but simply adds 64 seats expanding its membership from 454 to 518. 

Critics say the quota will cause Egyptians to shun woman candidates, knowing their seat is ensured.

"We do not support the quota," Mashhour said. "It destroys women's rights and does not represent equality in any way."

Others, however, were more positive about the new quota. Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian women's rights activist and head of the North Africa Bureau of the American Islamic Congress, said she supported the quota, but not for the reason the NDP introduced it.

"The quota is a great step for empowering women and including them in the decision making process," she told The Media Line. "But the NDP is using the quota to manipulate the number of its women affiliates in the parliament. This way, they wish to gain a bigger bloc than any other group in the People's Assembly."

Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq and Morocco have introduced quotas for women in parliament. Iraq's 25 percent quota is the most generous, and Jordan doubled its quota to 12 percent in the parliamentary elections that took place in the kingdom earlier this month.   

"My neighbor, an NDP woman candidate, enjoys full rights and I'm discriminated against by government," complained Wafaa' Mashhour. "Why does this happen? Are we not part of Egyptian society?" 

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