Bread, Freedom and Social Justice for Women Too?

Guest Contributor - 17th April 2013


By Rhea Fernandes –

As member states unanimously passed the final draft proposal at the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood reinforced its conservative position on women’s rights by condemning aspects of the declaration as antithetical to Islam.

The 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women ended on March 15th with the passage of a new declaration primarily aimed at eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls. The two-week session was heralded as a victory by many, including the head of the Egyptian delegation, Mervat El-Tallawy, who deemed the declaration a gift to Egyptian women. El-Tallawy’s voice on women’s rights in Egypt is a sharp contrast to the statement released by the Muslim Brotherhood, which called the declaration “the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries.” They argued that some provisions such as replacing guardianship with partnership among married couples, granting wives the right to file legal complaints in the case of spousal rape, and providing equality in marriage legislation, do more than just undermine the institution of the family but “subvert the entire society” as a whole.

The sentiments expressed by the Brotherhood reflect the reservations held by countries such as Iran and the Holy See, and point to a longstanding tension between culture, tradition, and women’s rights. However, the response by the Brotherhood reveals less about the content of the declaration than the direction of Egypt itself. With strong links to President Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, the increasing power and presence of the Brotherhood and the consequent crackdown on women’s participation in political and social spheres reflects the regressive state of Egypt’s revolutionary ambitions.

The 2011 protests that precipitated the fall of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak were comprised of nearly 50% women. Even as the chants from Tahrir Square calling for “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (Bread, Freedom, Social Justice) echoed throughout the city, female protestors were being subjected to virginity checks, beatings, and strip-searches by soldiers. Last August, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a defender of the virginity checks, was appointed commander of Egypt’s armed forces. Yet the blatant disregard for women’s rights is more pervasive than the appointment of al-Sisi.  Egypt’s highly-criticized constitution, drafted by an unrepresentative, overwhelmingly male and Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, limited women’s rights to those compatible with Islamic law. It makes use of vague language in addressing protections for women and minorities, leaving them vulnerable to the caprices of the conservative and Islamist leaders who currently dominate Egyptian politics. The law has no recourse for women who have been raped by their husbands, and allows for leniency in “honor killings.”

In Egypt today, tradition and law work in tandem to reinforce discrimination against women. The 2013 Freedom House Report documents discrimination throughout the Egyptian civil service, and notes the presence of merely 10 women out of 508 seats in the parliament.

The story of Egypt’s revolution has not yet ended. There is still time to meet the demands at the heart of the Arab Spring – but such an effort must include freedom and justice for everyone. To discard the voices of women after a hard-fought battle would be a denial of the very movement that made democracy a possibility in Egypt.

Rhea Fernandes is a graduate student reading for her Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. 

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