Source: USA Today
Some charge that the document's wording, drafted by Islamists, leaves room for discriminatory interpretations. Egyptian women worry that the new Islamist constitution will allow judges to enforce abusive practices against women, even approving marriages of girls as young as 9, and some are organizing to protect their rights.

"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," says Nehad Abul Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.

The constitution, drafted by members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections, was approved by voters last month in a national vote.

Christians and liberals were given a minority number of seats on the committee that drafted the document, but they resigned in protest over the direction of the draft.

The constitution has a number of articles pertaining to women; activists say they are crafted not to protect freedoms but signal to judges that women are to be relegated to certain roles.

Abul Komsan says the constitution refers several times to the role of women as "caregivers." One article says that the state will provide all necessary services for mothers and children for free and will ensure a balance between the woman's family responsibilities and work in society.

"This means that women are only viewed as mothers. Does that mean that they can be professionals after they fulfill their home duties?" she asks.




Another example is Article 36, which says that the "state is committed to taking all constitutional and executive measures to ensure equality of women with men in all walks of political, cultural, economic and social life," though it stresses, "without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence."

Activists believe that the writing intentionally leaves room for discriminatory interpretations.

"Rights held by women are to be compatible with the 'principles' or rules of Islamic jurisprudence. The question is who gets to define the principles?" Abul Komsan says. "The same (Islamic) principles allow for women to be heads of states in Pakistan while banning them from driving in Saudi Arabia."

Although the article was in the previous Egyptian constitution drafted in 1971, the predominance of Islamists in the government today, since the ouster of military dictator Hosni Mubarak, means the government may be less likely to favor women's rights, activists say.

Egyptian judge Ali Mokhtar, head of the Cairo court of appeal who has criticized several clauses in the constitution, says the new constitution allows the government to determine the balance between women's rights and their role within their families.

"This broaches on society's personal ethics," he says. "The biggest problem with this constitution is with women's rights."

Outdated attitudes toward women?

Women played a pivotal role in the Egyptian revolution that forced out Mubarak in February 2011. They took part in the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square and helped keep the movement alive by sustaining protesters.

But elections that followed the ouster have largely benefited Islamists and radical Salafists who view women according to the teachings of the Quran and Islamic traditions that in some cases have relegated women to the status of property.

Quotas for women in parliamentary elections have been eliminated. Only 11 women won seats in the two chambers of parliament, which had 805 members before it was disbanded by the courts. In Tunisia, 28% of the parliamentary seats are held by women; in Algeria the number is 36%.

Some items pertaining to females that were in the previous constitution are not in the new one, like the clause that had set a minimum age for girls to be allowed to marry and criminalizing trafficking of female minors.

"With the new constitution, fathers are allowed to marry off their daughters at any age, even as young at 9. This often happens in rural areas where poor families sell their daughters to rich men," says human rights activist Noha Abdel Razek.

The new constitution has also failed to secure women's rights in education and equal work opportunities, referring to Article 64 that speaks of women's "capability rather than competences" in employment, Abdel Razek says.

"This means that the state would allow for men to be favored in the place of women with better competencies, because (women's) performance is likely to be constrained by family obligations," she says.



Disenfranchised, especially in rural areas

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.

"The problem is not just with the constitution but with the society. Having a perfect constitution is not enough," says Nora Fath, associate instructor of social studies at a local international school. "We need social programs to create awareness about women's rights, especially among the more disenfranchised classes."

Go to top