The Middle East Channel

Has Egypt's Revolution left women behind?

Millions of women were among the 52 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in Egypt's parliamentary elections this week, but preliminary results suggest that Egypt's first popularly elected legislature since the revolution might not include a single female face. Despite anecdotal reports of massive female turnout in Cairo and the other eight governorates that cast ballots in this first of three rounds of voting, women may very well be the biggest losers of an election that has been hailed as the freest and fairest in Egypt's recent history. Although 376 female candidates are running for parliament, not a single woman has won a seat so far in the 508-seat People's Assembly after the first two days of voting on November 28 and 29 and this week's runoff races. And there is good reason to believe that women will fare just as poorly in subsequent rounds of voting.The second and third stages of elections, slated for December and January, will include Egypt's most rural and conservative districts where gender biases are more deeply ingrained than the urban centers of Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said that voted this week. Faced with the possibility of an entirely male parliament, many Egyptians are wondering: Were women left behind by the Revolution?

Women have been on the frontlines of protests in Tahrir Square since the earliest days of the uprising and were instrumental in mobilizing the grassroots groundswell on Twitter and Facebook. But as activist youth movements like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition struggle to define their role in the post-revolutionary system -- pondering if and how they should convert the momentum of the street into formal political representation -- women are increasingly being left out of the conversation. While it's true that the forty some-odd parties launched since last January have welcomed women as members and in some leadership positions, when it came time to nominate candidates for the parliamentary elections, women were conspicuously absent from the party lists. In late October, as parties began lining up their candidate rosters for the two thirds of parliamentary seats that will be allocated by closed-list proportional representation, Gameela Ismael, one of Egypt's most prominent political activists and the ex-wife of presidential candidate Ayman Nour, publicly defected from the Democratic Alliance -- a primarily Islamist coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party -- just weeks before the election, citing the coalition's discriminatory stance against female candidates.

Although women represent almost 25 percent of Egypt's labor force and 49 percent of university students, they still suffer from persistent discrimination and harassment in the workplace and at home. In 2010, Egypt ranked a dismal 120 out of 128 countries in gender equality by the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, largely due to its poor performance in the subcategories of political empowerment and genuine female opportunity in the economy. Gender-based violence remains a serious problem for women, including major public figures like Bothaina Kamel, a former television anchor and Egypt's first female presidential candidate, who claims to have been sexually assaulted by soldiers after joining a recent protest in Tahrir Square.

Although the discourse surrounding the January uprising drew inspiration from liberal democratic values, the revolution has not altered the fundamentally patriarchal infrastructure of Egyptian society or its biased gender norms. Mozn Hassan, a women's rights activist and director of the organization Nazra for Feminist Studies, recognizes that entrenched values and attitudes won't be uprooted overnight. "Some people thought the culture-based discrimination we had been raised on could be changed in 18 days," she said, referring to the revolution. "Now they know it's a long struggle.

Female candidates already face an uphill battle in overcoming sexist attitudes on the campaign trail, but to make matters worse, structural features of the new electoral system have stacked the odds against women. Amendments to the electoral law introduced in October replaced the 64-seat quota for female parliamentary representatives -- enacted by the former regime -- with the requirement that each party's candidate list include at least one woman. Although final results will not be determined until the third round of voting in January, it's already clear that the revised gender quota has radically diminished the odds for female candidates, and preliminary results virtually guarantee that Egypt's next government will include significantly fewer women than did that of Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak's former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) realized early on that it could consolidate its monopoly on power and burnish its paper-thin credentials as a nominal democracy by promoting the political participation of women. In 2010, the NDP introduced a 64-seat quota for female representatives in the People's Assembly. Even though the decision was primarily motivated by the ruling party's desire to further consolidate an already overwhelming parliamentary majority by padding the People's Assembly with regime-friendly appointees, the quota was hailed by international observers as a victory for women's rights. Although the former regime blatantly exploited its female loyalists as political pawns, women undeniably benefited from their representation in parliament and unprecedented visibility in the political arena. But this week's election results don't bode well for their role in the new political system. After women held a respectable 12 percent of the seats in Mubarak's last parliament, (4 elected and 60 appointed), the current elections are projected to produce a parliament that is entirely devoid of women.

Looking more closely at the new electoral system, structural features of the political game will make it extraordinarily difficult for women to win. At face value, the requirement that each party include a woman on its list looks like a step toward leveling the playing field. But in reality, forcing parties to nominate women has done no favors for female candidates. Parties have dealt with the gender requirement by relegating women to the least desirable slots at the bottom of their candidate lists. As one female candidate, Suheir al-Matanin described the problem, "Women are just there for decoration." Under the proportional representation system, seats are allocated to candidates according to their relative position on a party's list. In most cases, only the first two or three names on a list have a reasonable chance of winning seats, so if every party places its female candidates near the bottom, it would be nearly impossible for women to win more than a handful of the 498 elected seats in the lower house. At present, it is possible that one female candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party -- Omayma Kamel, who ranked fourth on a list that received 59 percent of the vote in Cairo's fourth electoral district -- could be allocated a seat after the third round in January, but final results will not be determined until then. 

The SCAF could of course remedy the blatant gender imbalance in a backhanded way, by packing the ten seats reserved for government appointees with women and Coptic Christians, a favorite tactic of the former regime to artificially inflate the parliamentary representation of minorities.

In light of the landslide victory by Islamist parties this week (projected to win up to 70 percent of the People's Assembly), some Egyptians are concerned that a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis could reverse progress on women's rights. Farkhonda Hassan, secretary-general of the National Council for Women (NCW), warned that the underrepresentation of women in the next parliament could set Egypt "a dozen steps back." "If Islamists come to power, I expect that they will strip women of the achievements they made throughout the previous years," Hassan predicted. When Salafi parties were required to include women on their candidate lists, they made sure that the candidates' faces were replaced with flowers on campaign materials, because displaying photos of women in public was deemed inappropriate. If the Salafis are already censoring posters, their parliamentarians aren't likely to look favorably on the participation of women in public and political life. Reacting to election results on December 6, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States expects "all democratic actors and elected officials to uphold universal human rights, including women's rights." But without a voice in parliament, the rights Egyptian women have fought for over the past few decades could be in jeopardy.

Mara Revkin is the assistant director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource. She can be reached at mrevkin@acus.org.

AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/Getty Images

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