Egypt elected the first Arab woman to parliament in 1957, but in the half century since, the most populous country in the Arab world has gone from being a leader in women’s political participation to a lagger.
“Many Arab countries went ahead, but Egypt stayed behind,” says Hoda Badran, head of the Cairo-based Alliance for Arab Women (AAW).
Female parliamentary representation has declined since 1984, when women occupied 36 of the 458 seats in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament. Women secured just nine of 454 seats in the last legislative election in 2005. Only four women were elected, the rest were appointed by the president.
Experts attribute the decline in political participation to social and cultural barriers imposed by a patriarchal society, reinforced by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism that swept across the Arab world in the 1980s. Conservative groups held that women should stay at home and manage the family, and sought to impose many limitations on women.
“Political parties, which are supposed to school women, do not give women training, do not put them on their lists and have not backed their campaigns,” Badran told IPS. “At most they just put them on a women’s committee, segregating them from other committees and the mainstream work of the party.”
The few women who do run face obstacles in raising campaign funds, and are vulnerable to the violence and thuggery that typically accompany elections in Egypt. Female candidates have reported being physically intimidated by their opponents, or subject to smear campaigns against their reputation.
New legislation and civil society programmes aim at increasing female representation in Egypt’s parliament, but it could take decades to dismantle the social and cultural obstacles. Unfortunately, says Badran, progress usually requires direct intervention.
Since 2003 Egypt has seen its first female judge, a female university president, and several female cabinet ministers. All were appointed by President Hosni Mubarak in an effort to kickstart women’s political participation.
Earlier this month, Egyptian legislators passed a bill that allocates 64 parliamentary seats for women, increasing the number of seats in the People’s Assembly to 518. The “positive discrimination,” to be applied in general elections due in 2010, ensures women will hold a minimum of 12 percent of seats in the next legislature, up from 1 percent in the current one.
Quota systems have been applied in over 70 countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America to develop the capacity and competency of women in decision-making fields.
Egypt applied a 30-seat quota for female MPs in 1979, but repealed it in1988 after its constitutionality was challenged. Women’s organisations have applauded the reintroduction of the measure, though some have voiced concern about its form and implementation.
Nehad Abu El-Komsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), has lobbied for a quota for 15 years, but worries that the current system, where women will campaign individually in specially designated constituencies, only reinforces the notion that women should compete separately from men. She favours a proportional list system, where each party would field a minimum number of female candidates as part of its electoral slate.
“A proportional system would guarantee that women are not isolated; they would be part of the group,” she says. “And this would force the parties to look for active women candidates, and to train women and support them at all levels.”
The new quota system is to be applied for two legislative terms, or 10 years, which some argue is not long enough to change deep-rooted conservative views on women’s roles. “It needs at least a generation to change attitudes,” says Abu El-Komsan. “You cannot expect it to happen overnight.”
On the positive side, Badran points out, the quota will guarantee women more representation in the lower house – hopefully enough to have an impact. “The issue here is what kind of women are going to be elected to these 64 seats,” she says. “Our role as NGOs will be to work very strongly and eagerly between now and the election …”
An AAW programme launched last year is preparing to send a group of women to Britain to receive training as campaign managers for female political candidates. The “nucleus of campaign managers” will work with 20 women selected from various Egyptian political parties, who will be trained and supported in their candidacy in the upcoming election.
“We are creating a group of professional campaign managers who will manage the campaigns of the 20 women as a start,” says Badran. “(They will) be working afterwards for any kind of election, not necessarily for parliament, but also for labour unions and the various syndicates.”
The National Council for Women (NCW), headed by first lady Suzanne Mubarak, established its own project to enhance women’s political participation in 2003 through its Center for the Political Empowerment of Women (CPEW).
The UNDP-backed programme aims at developing the skill set of potential female candidates, improving the legislative and oversight knowledge of women MPs, and raising awareness of the importance of women’s participation in political life. A separate programme to enhance the performance of women in parliament and local councils was added in 2006.
“(Local) councils are the preliminary institutions for nurturing cadres, who will be capable of handling the responsibilities of leadership, because of their presence among people at the grassroots level,” Mubarak said during a conference in March.
Why is it important to support female parliamentary candidates? Badran sees women’s political participation as critical to addressing key developmental issues. “There is a correlation between the number and quality of women in parliament and the type of legislation which comes out of the parliament,” she says.