Egyptian women divided on parliamentary quota - Feature
|Tuesday, June 16,2009 05:26|
Cairo - Egypt"s parliament on Sunday approved changes to the country"s electoral law to require 64 seats in the parliament to be held by women, but women in Cairo said they were divided on the issue. The amendments sailed through both houses of parliament over the weekend, sped by the ruling party"s grip on both, but they capped a long debate that has highlighted divisions within the ruling party, the Islamist opposition, and Egyptian women themselves.
The new law raises the number of seats in the People"s Assembly, Egypt"s lower house of parliament, from 454 to 518, and mandates that the 64 additional seats be held by women.
The president already appoints 10 seats in the assembly, and has used some of those appointments to ensure that some women and Christians are represented.
Safwat El-Sherif, head of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), has described the measures as "an historic turning point for Egyptian women and a big boost to political reform efforts."
Arguing for the amendments on Saturday, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Moufid Shehab described them as "positive discrimination," and invoked the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to justify them.
According to local press reports, the NDP debated the details of the plan for weeks before submitting it to parliament for approval, arguing over the number of seats to be reserved for women, whether urban areas should reserve more seats for women, among other details.
The amendments will take effect in the 2010 elections, and will apply for only two five-year election cycles.
"The timing of the amendment is suspicious, coming so soon after US President Barack Obama"s speech and his calls for women"s rights," Amani Abul-Fadl, the head of the Egyptian Centre for Monitoring Priorities of Women and a self-described Islamic feminist, told the German Press Agency dpa.
"I am in favour of women"s participation, but in this context, the amendment looks like a response to Obama"s call," she said. "Carrying out Obama"s orders is a violation of national sovereignty. It is unacceptable."
Out of 444 seats up for grabs in the 2005 elections, only four went to women. Mubarak appointed another four.
Abul-Fadl blamed women"s poor showing in the last elections on pre-election violence and intimidation, and said the government would do better to put an end to these problems if it wanted to encourage women to participate.
"I thought of running in 2005, but then I withdrew my candidacy because as a respectable woman I could not tolerate violence and thuggery," she said.
Huwaida Roman, an assistant professor of political science at Misr International University, said she supported "positive discrimination for women," but called these amendments "impractical" and "cosmetic."
"If it is hard enough for a man to campaign in a constituency that includes just one district, it is nearly impossible for a woman to campaign in a constituency that includes all the districts in the entire province," Roman said.
"It sounds civilized to have this number of female legislators," Riham Farag, a 37-year-old secretary in a shipping company, disagreed. "I think because they will feel challenged they will do their best to perform better in the assembly and will compete to offer services to the people who elected them."
The Muslim Brotherhood, which, though banned, is Egypt"s largest opposition group, reportedly held intense meetings over the 48 hours before the proposals were submitted to parliament in order to arrive at a position.
In the end, they decided they would encourage women to run for the newly-created seats, noting they had run female candidates in the last election. Brotherhood candidates occupy their seats as independents.
"Neither the majority nor the opposition deny women the right to representation in the parliament," Saad al-Katatni, the head of Brotherhood"s bloc in parliament, said in an interview run on the group"s website.
But, he said, he opposed the law because he suspected it was an underhanded means of adding NDP seats to the parliament.
"More than 500 women wanted to apply to run in past elections but were prevented from submitting their papers" because they were running in districts the NDP wanted to win, he said.
Nagla Mohammed, a 40-year-old homemaker, said she would wait to pass judgment.
"It is good that women should play a role in politics," she said.
"But I can only judge the impact of their presence in parliament after I see their practical contribution. It is not a matter of having women in parliament - the question is what they will do."