Egyptian Women Mark International Women’s Day With Demands for Parliament

 

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CAIRO, EGYPT – Engy Ghozlan will join other women’s rights activists today in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, as they march to Parliament to mark International Women’s Day.

Ghozlan says the march is not a celebration, but rather an opportunity for women to deliver a list of demands to the new Parliament, which is currently 98-percent male.

“There are two levels for this event: the street march, whose call extends to every Egyptian who cares about Egyptian women’s future, dignity and equality, and the Parliament stand and delivery of demands,” she says.

Ghozlan, co-founder of HarassMap, a website that collects data about sexual harassment in Egypt, says that the march aims to reassure the nation that women’s rights groups have no plans to give up their fight for more freedom and equality. The list of demands looks to make women’s voices heard in Parliament after few women received seats in recent elections.

“The demands include a fair representation of women in the constitution committee and for the issues of women’s equality to be stressed on in the writing of the new constitution, whether in socio-economic rights or civil liberties,” she says.

Ghozlan says the march aims to remind civilians and new members of Parliament that the Egyptian women’s struggle is not a new phenomenon. It’s carved in history, and progress should reflect that.

“In the 1930s, we had the first Egyptian female pilot,” Ghozlan says. “It’s a shame that today we are discussing whether women’s place is home or not.”

She says that Egyptian women have always participated in politics and that the recent results of the parliamentary elections are not a real reflection of the roles women are playing on the ground, whether in political parties or different initiatives.

“You cannot stand in front of the natural progression of life,” she says. “Women are there, and they marched along and worked along and will not be pushed to the side.”

Egyptian women are marching to the newly elected Parliament today to present a list of demands in light of International Women’s Day. Women’s political participation can also be seen on university campuses, where female students have been resurrecting student movements. Although women won just 2 percent of Parliament’s elected seats, they say their political participation has been strong historically and continues to grow, with many women voting for the first time last year.

Egyptian feminists and women’s rights organizations are marching today to mark – not celebrate – International Women’s Day. Bearing the name “Women With the Revolution,” the march will start at the journalists’ syndicate in Cairo and head to Parliament headquarters. Women in other cities are also carrying out the march on a smaller scale.

Various groups have collaborated to organize the event, including the Coalition of Women’s NGOs in Egypt, feminist Nawal Al-Saadawi’s Egyptian Women’s Union and women’s committees from different political parties. Organizers aim to recruit a million women to participate.

Women say that the march is another sign that their political participation is alive and well, assuaging fears by some that their rights are declining.

Last month, a number of activists, political movements and political parties called for a strike on Feb. 11 to mark the first anniversary of former President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. Their goal was to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over after Mubarak was ousted, to transfer power immediately to civilians and set a date for presidential elections.

Although many sectors turned down the call to strike, it found its way to many Egyptian universities, with female students leading demonstrations.

A group of female students at Mansoura University in Mansoura, a city northeast of Cairo, led a demonstration during the first days of the strike. They carried coffins to send a message that they are not afraid to die for their beliefs in freedom and democracy.

Noha Hussein participated in the strike at her university, Ain Shams University in Cairo. Students organized demonstrations on campus and refused to attend lectures or pay tuition fees.

Hussein likened the strike to swimming against a current.

“The strike faced a powerful wave of criticism from the general public, those in power, the media and even religious leaders,” she says.

But she says the effort was worth the try, calling it sharp evidence that the student movement has been revived. She adds that female students have been at the forefront of this revival.

“They might think we failed, but who would have thought that university students could come this far when it comes to political participation?” she asks.

Hussein says she will continue this participation by taking part in the International Women’s Day march today.

“If women cannot be represented fairly inside the Parliament, we will just voice our demands right outside its doors,” she says, laughing.

The “Revolution Parliament” is the first Parliament to be formed following the revolution that began on Jan. 25, 2011. The newly elected People’s Assembly, the lower house of the bicameral Egyptian Parliament, will have many duties, including the mandate of a committee to draft a new Egyptian Constitution.

Abdel-Mooaez Ibrahim, head of Egypt’s High Election Commission, announced in a press conference that 62 percent of eligible voters turned out for the first round of the People’s Assembly elections. He called the number “the highest since the time of pharaohs.”

But despite the historic participation, fewer than 15 women were voted into Parliament’s nearly 680 elected seats, according to the Egypt office of The Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization. The future president will appoint the remaining members to the Shura Council, Parliament’s upper house.

A report by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, an independent, nonpartisan and nongovernmental organization dedicated to supporting women's pursuit of full rights and establishing gender equality, called the results a disaster. But it also shed light on some promising aspects of the elections, such as the number of women who participated as voters and candidates.

Since Egypt granted women the right to vote and run for office in 1956, the number of female candidates reached 984 last year, according to the report. Eligible female voters reached 23.5 million.

Somia Adel, a 25-year-old lawyer in Alexandria, was the youngest female candidate in the parliamentary elections. Adel didn’t win a seat in the People’s Assembly. But she says that she only wants to be a role model for other young women to take part politics, which is what she continues to do now.

“Before the Jan. 25 revolution, I was only politically active through blogging,” she says. “I also used to participate in some demonstration, as long as I believed in their cause. I didn’t join any political party or care about political agendas.”

Adel believes that the revolution really started on Feb. 11, the day Mubarak was overthrown. To her, it was time for women to claim their role in politics.

After the revolution, Adel joined the Egyptian Current Party. Youth from diverse political currents formed the group in June 2011.

“I wanted to join a party that allows me to continue my role in the revolution, where everyone was equal and the only goal was building Egypt, regardless of the difference of ideologies and personal interests,” she says.

Adel continues to be an active member of the Egyptian Current party.

“I have dreams and unlimited energy,” she says. “I want to leave a mark and have the honor of building my country. I want to make sure the demands of the revolution are fulfilled.”

She says she is confident this can happen.

“I am optimistic,” Adel says.

While many women decry the gender disparity in the new Parliament, Adel says that this is not because of discrimination against women in politics.

“If the participation of women in the political life is insignificant, it is because women are not trying to practice their right,” she says. “I would not blame the society in this matter.”

She encourages women to get more involved in politics.

“Women must know that they have to have a voice in politics, civil society organizations and public life,” she says.

Before the revolution, many citizens didn’t vote because it was public knowledge that the results were forged. There were also many violent acts during the voting process to pressure citizens to vote for the ruling party.

Since the revolution, people have been encouraged to vote. In November 2011, many women in their 60s, 70s and 80s voted for the first time.

Aida Mahmoud, 59, stood in a line of hundreds of women under the heavy rain that stormed the coastal city of Alexandria in order to finally cast her vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections. Mahmoud, who recently had had back surgery, queued for four hours until she finally reached her polling booth.

“I am voting for the first time in my life,” she said, smiling.

Mahmoud said that she was neither a member of any political party nor committed to a certain movement or ideology.

“I am not ashamed to admit that this is the first time I practice my political right,” she said. “You can never be too old to finally have a voice!”

Mahmoud stressed that if it weren’t for the January 2011 revolution, she would have never had this experience. She expresses hope that women make the most of it.

“Young Egyptians had to sacrifice their life so that we can have a voice,” she says. “Their sacrifice can never go to waste.”