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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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by Ines Bel Aiba

AFP: November 25, 2010

CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt is for the first time guaranteeing 64 out of 508 parliamentary seats being contested in Sunday’s election for women, boosting their profile in a male-dominated society, but some see it as a cynical bid to bolster the ruling party.

Wafaa Mashhur is not convinced by the new quota system, but she is running as a Muslim Brotherhood candidate in the central province of Asyut.

Mashhur, a guidance counsellor at an Islamic school established by the Brotherhood, sees the measure as an “opportunity” but nevertheless believes it will only help to consolidate the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)’s grip on power.

The women’s quota in Sunday’s vote was created by a law passed last year that, according to the government, was designed to increase female representation in the People’s Assembly.

Women MPs currently number just eight, of whom only three were elected, with the other five appointed by the president.

Welcomed at the time as an historic event for Egyptian women by parliamentary speaker Fathi Surur, the measure will be applied for two parliamentary sessions, after which the government hopes it will no longer be necessary.

Egypt first established a women’s quota in 1979 — of 30 seats — but it was judged unconstitutional by the judiciary several times in the mid-1980s. The constitution has since been amended to allow quotas for women.

While observers agree that the latest measure is a positive step, some have expressed concern about what motivated it and the political context in which it was taken.

“The women?s quota is a positive development in that it can help redress the longstanding under-representation of women and bring Egypt in line with levels of female parliamentary participation elsewhere in the Arab world,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said.

“But the quota will represent an advance in political freedom only if the seats are freely contested. As it is, many observers fear that the women?s seats will be one more tool for the NDP to control the assembly,” the US research group added.

Khadiga Osmane, an NDP candidate in Giza, brushes such criticism aside.

“The party is already very strong and full of important and brilliant men. It does not need women to strengthen its position,” said Osmane, a long-practising accountant who says she has been a party member all her life.

But Gamila Ismail, an independent who has refused to join the list reserved for women, said the ruling party “doesn’t only need a majority, it needs an overwhelming majority in view of the tough year ahead,” alluding to the presidential election due to take place in late 2011.

“The regime dupes women and uses them to boost its image abroad.”

“It’s not a question of gender. Women will participate fully (in political life) when men do too. They themselves are not able to participate in the context of an authoritarian regime and an electoral process that is not transparent,” said Ismail.

Despite such reservations, the political analyst Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyed reckons that “the government is catching up, since the presence of women is currently very low.”

“I think that it would have been preferable if this had been done by the parties, so that it does not appear to have been imposed by the state, but it is still a positive step for the representation of women,” he added.

The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights remains cautious, bearing in mind that Egypt’s previous experience with quotas was a failure and calling the new quota “low” compared with the proportion of seats reserved for women MPs in some other countries.

“The large size of the constituencies reserved for women is a financial and physical burden for the candidates,” the NGO said, resulting in the “sidelining of social groups that are more in need of political representation.”

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