The Case for Women’s Rights in Post-Uprising Egypt

By Mirette F. Mabrouk | Senior Fellow, Director of the Egypt program - The Middle East Institute | Apr 25, 2013
The Case for Women’s Rights in Post-Uprising Egypt

When Egyptian women first gained the vote in 1956, a woman in the cabinet swiftly followed. Women likely thought that all would be clear sailing from that point on, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Almost 70 years later, only one woman is in the cabinet.

The situation of women in post-uprising Egypt is influenced by an uneasy mix of authoritarian attempts to control a voting bloc, socially ingrained patriarchal attitudes, and a creeping bias cloaked in a religious mantle. While the challenges faced by women are multiple, they may be viewed through the assaults on their political participation and on their basic rights in the constitution and state laws.

A Political Arena, Guaranteed Largely Estrogen-free

The 2006 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report noted that Egypt “performed poorly overall (109 out of 134 countries) but was particularly impaired by its ranking on political participation and economic empowerment and opportunity.”[1] Six years later, there has been movement: Egypt has slid another seven places to 126.[2] Egypt performed similarly in regard to women holding cabinet positions, coming in at 95 out of 125 countries.[3] These results are particularly disappointing in view of the hopes raised by the participation of women in the uprising.

When the first post-uprising elections were held, women were in for a surprise. The quota guaranteeing 64 seats in parliament for women--originally introduced by the former ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), and used mainly as a way to swell its parliamentary ranks than fight for gender parity‑‑was cancelled. Despite the efforts of a myriad of women’s groups and the state-run National Council for Human Rights, and despite the fact that 108 countries worldwide exercise a parliamentary quota to ensure a measure of gender parity, women were only guaranteed one place on the party lists. With few exceptions, they were placed at the bottom. Since the candidates from successful party lists were selected in descending order, women on the lists had a paltry chance of making it into parliament.

The majority of parties followed this tactic, including the conservative Salafi parties, al-Nour, al-Asala, and al-Fadila. Though these parties had initially objected to any inclusion of women in the election, they adopted the practice. However, they had stipulations and clearly viewed the policy as a necessary evil. Salafi leader Mahmoud Amer declared that female candidates should wear the niqab (a form of hijab that covers the face, leaving only the eyes visible) and should not speak to men unless absolutely necessary. The Salafi parties ran women at the bottom of their lists with pictures of flowers in lieu of photos. The spokesman for the Nour Party, Nader Bakkar, said at the time that the only reason the party was running women‑‑apart from it being an enforced policy‑‑was that it wanted to “prevent other candidates who are not from the Islamist trend from winning any seats.”[4]

As a result, women made up an anorexic two percent of Egypt’s post-uprising parliament. Tunisia, by contrast, had 26 percent female representation in parliament, and women comprised around 48 percent of the Islamist party Ennahda’s total representation.

Nor were those representatives who made up the two percent any comfort to women’s rights activists. Of the eight, four represented the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The most prominent of them was Azza Al-Garf, who was best known for voicing her approval of female genital mutilation and suggesting that men and women have different skill sets, with embroidery being one to which women are best suited.

Egypt’s new electoral law‑‑cancelled in March by court order‑‑also mandated one female candidate, but only for those constituencies with more than four candidates, thus knocking down the number of potential female parliamentarians even further. The law is currently being redrawn.

Women have had even less luck in the cabinet. While there were four women in the cabinet before the uprising and three in the cabinet that followed, the number has dwindled to one. This decrease has occurred under Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, himself appointed by Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is easy to argue that this weak political representation is a deliberate effort to keep women out of the political arena, but it is more difficult to apportion blame. While the Islamist parties are obvious candidates, the so-called liberal and secular parties have also failed to push female representation. Indeed, the percentage of women fielded by Egypt’s oldest liberal party, al-Wafd, was 13.7 percent, compared to the 13.6 percent fielded by the FJP.[5] This might reflect a cynically realistic attitude toward voter behavior. It is possible that the liberal and secular parties realized that espousing female political participation was one thing and getting the masses to buy into it was another. Failure to support female participation, however, is not the same as preventing it. Increasing evidence suggests that attempts to block female political participation have taken a disturbingly sinister turn.

Egyptian women have been at the forefront of the uprising, and over 50 marches related to women’s rights in Egypt took place in 2012. During elections, polling lines are segregated by gender and in urban areas the women’s lines are typically far longer than those of the men. It has in fact become common to see women carrying infants and holding their children’s hands as they queue for hours in order to cast their vote. The December 2012 referendum on Egypt’s constitution saw what is widely considered a concerted attempt to keep women from voting by preventing their entry to polling stations. Women stood outside stations for up to eight hours while the men came and went.

Over the past year, there has also been a more violent deterrent to female political participation, namely a sharp increase in sexual assaults, especially in Tahrir Square. These attacks are never by individual assailants but are perpetuated by mobs which, according to eyewitnesses, appear to be carefully organized. The tactic is often to separate a woman, ranging in age from teenager to pensioner, from her companions. The woman is then stripped and assaulted. In one especially horrifying incident attackers used a bladed weapon on a woman’s genitals.[6]

The attacks have elicited widespread horror and condemnation, although little of it has come from the FJP. The most extraordinary comments have come from the Salafi ranks, with the exception of the Nour party. Salafi preacher Ahmed Abdallah, better known as Abu Islam, stated on television that women who went to Tahrir were essentially there to blow off a little sexual steam and thus raping them “was not a red line.”[7] Egyptian women reacted by forming groups to protect women protestors and by insisting on participating in demonstrations. Egypt’s women, it seems, have no intention of leaving the political arena.

The Constitution and the Laws: The Right to Remain Silent

Since the uprising, two constituent assemblies have been tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution. A court order dissolved the first in April of 2012, and the second, which was overwhelmingly dominated by Islamists, barely had the seven percent female representation of the first. The only female activist, Manal el-Tibi, resigned in disgust at what she termed Islamist domination of the process.[8]

But the assault on women’s rights had begun during the first parliamentary session, before it was dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court in June 2012. During that session, Islamist parliamentarians attempted to introduce laws infringing on women’s rights or cancel laws that protected them. Former parliamentarian Mohamed al-Omda was among those who pushed to repeal the law governing khulu divorce, which allows a woman an uncontested divorce on the condition that she return all financial gifts to her husband and relinquish alimony. He insisted that the law was an “un-Islamic” holdover from the previous regime and that it chipped away at the fabric of Egyptian society by damaging the male psyche. In fact, the law is entirely Islamic, having been first mentioned by the Prophet Mohamed. Both al-Azhar’s legislation department and the shari`a department of the Constitutional Court rejected the repeal, leading the People's Assembly’s Proposals and Complaints Committee to deny the draft law.[9]

Not to be outdone, the Nour Party’s Hamada Soliman demanded that the age at which child custody passes from the mother to the father be reduced to seven years from 15 in the case of boys and to nine years in the case of girls, who currently remain with their mother until marriage if they choose. These age restrictions are in place largely because, in cases of divorce, Islam places a premium on two things:  the importance of the mother’s role in a child’s upbringing during its formative years, and (assuming the mother does not remarry) the likelihood that the children will be happier with her than with a stepmother. It remains one of the few areas of family court in which women consistently gain the upper hand. It isn’t entirely surprising that he was turned down.

Salafi representatives have also consistently, if unsuccessfully, tried to reduce the marriage age for girls from 18 to 16 and, in some cases, as low as nine or ten, only to be turned down by a parliamentary majority. During the second constitutional assembly, Salafi members insisted that a clause on prohibiting the trafficking of children and women be removed. Nour party leader Younis Makhyoun defended the act in a television interview, saying that  preserving the law would tarnish the country’s image abroad by suggesting that trafficking exists in Egypt when in fact it does not.[10] But the real reason for the desire to remove the clause‑‑not mentioned by Makhyoun‑‑is that poor Egyptian families gain income by (often illegally) marrying their young daughters to Gulf Arabs‑‑which is essentially a form of trafficking. Makhyoun went on to say on another television program that in his view girls could marry as young as nine or ten.[11]

This obsession with early marriage for girls may be viewed as a perversion or at best ignorance. Yet it also involves a concerted effort to keep half of the voting bloc under the male-dominated government’s thumb. Women who are illiterate‑‑and it is doubtful that a child who marries at 10 will have much time for an education‑‑are more easily controlled. As Mona Ezzat of the New Woman Foundation has said, “It serves [the government] best if women remain uneducated so [it] can make use of them as an election bloc whose votes [it] can buy with essential goods."[12]

This idea is especially relevant when one considers that women are serious competition for men in the informal labor market. It is estimated that women are the sole supporters of up to 30 percent of households in Egypt. According to Heba Aziz el-Kholy, “This has obvious implications for the material basis for male authority in the family … [it] creat[es] new areas of negotiation and contestation in the household.”[13] While a lack of an education is not always an impediment to menial employment (or vice versa), marrying off girls at a young age makes it less likely that they will compete with their husbands in terms of employment or domestic bargaining power.

The control of female employment was clearly a consideration for the drafters of the constitution. Article 10 specifically mentions that the state “shall balance between a woman’s obligations toward family and public work.” In other words, the state specifies what a woman’s obligations are. This will likely be a problem for women in professional disputes against men, who are not required to balance any obligations, as judges can interpret what constitutes balance in women’s lives and may curtail their professional advances accordingly.


Egyptian women are currently under siege, fighting to hold on to the rights they have spent decades acquiring. A concerted effort is underway to sideline them politically, professionally, and educationally. In the midst of a disturbing mix of urgent economic and social problems it is easy for many to believe that women’s issues can wait. Yet women make up almost half of Egypt’s voting bloc and are therefore vital to its political future. Women’s rights are also often an excellent indicator of how a nation will treat minorities, and no democracy can claim security without ensuring it for its minorities.

Despite current challenges, Egypt’s women show no sign of giving up the fight to maintain their hard-won rights. Egypt’s new ruling elite will find that it was significantly easier to unseat a former regime than it will be to shake its women.

[1] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2006.

[2] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2012.

[3] Dina Samir, “Egyptian Women Still Struggling for Rights 2 Years after Egyptian Revolution,” Ahram Online, 12 February 2013.

[4] Mounir Adib, “Women Running in Elections Should be Veiled, says Salafi Leader,” Al-Masry Al-Youm, 13 October 2011.

[5] Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, “In 2012 Parliament…What Women Lost and What Egypt Lost?!,”

[6] Tom Dale, “Sexual Assault in Tahrir, What it Means and How to Stop It,” Egypt Independent, 27 January 2013.

[7] “Raping Women in Tahrir is NOT ‘Red Line’ Egyptian Preacher Abu Islam,” Al-Arabiya, 7 February 2013.

[8] Bassem Sabry, “Manal El-Tibi’s Resignation Letter to Egypt’s Constituent Assembly,” Ahram Online, 26 September 2012.

[9] Noha el-Hennawy, “Parliament Rejects Proposal to Cancel Women’s Right to Divorce,” Egypt Independent, 8 April 2012.

[10] “Egypt: Fix Draft Constitution to Protect Key Rights,” Human Rights Watch, 8 October, 2012

[11] “Egypt: Fix Draft Constitution to Protect Key Rights,” Human Rights Watch, 8 October, 2012

[12] Dina Samir, “Egyptian Women Still Struggling for Rights 2 Years after Egyptian Revolution,” Ahramonline, 12 February 2013.

[13] Heba Aziz el-Kholy, “Defiance and Compliance: Negotiating Gender in Low-Income Cairo,” Berghahn Books, 2002.