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

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Originally Published by Sawt Al Niswa, February 14, 2011

By Maggie Abikhadra

In two short weeks, the world has witnessed, through Egypt, a historical event few were prepared for. What would have been a repressed movement has found strength through new media outlets.

 

Sandy Chamoun, 2010, Cairo

Twitter has created a voice for those otherwise voiceless partisans. The agitation Egypt has witnessed proved to the world that the Middle East is not home to only sectarian movements. Christians and Muslims stood side by side against a regime that has long stopped providing services to its citizens. They protected one another during praying rituals. They prayed next to each other each in their own way using their own words.

These revolutionaries not only provided us with a picture of unity and acceptance. The beautiful vision they offered us was one of equality among genders. Men and women from all ethnicities and confessions stood next to one another in prayer and rebellion against an injustice long endured.

This scene of unity between women and men brought high hopes to a segment of society that are normally considered second class citizens. The inequalities between genders have been pressing issues in the patriarchal society of Egypt.

Rumors resonated from Tahrir Square of women being subject to sexual harassment during the uprising that Egypt has witnessed in the last couple of weeks. These claims were quickly denied. Not one voice corroborated these allegations. In a country were women are constantly subjected to sexual harassment, the avowal of these claims have been a major victory in its own way. After years of being treated as second class citizens and considered inferior to men, women have been finally and justly deemed equals.

This small intonation of genders together highlighted the gap that women have long endured on a daily basis at the hand of patriarchy. Although some outdated laws had been rectified by new ones, the application of these laws has not attained all classes and all regions. The gradual progress in the implementation of the Convention of 1981 on the ‘elimination of all forms of discrimination against women’ Egypt has ratified, has been slow.

The lack of education in rural Egypt made them obsolete in the eyes of its citizens. Some practices are still carried out such as the horrendous female circumcision. Although the butchering of young girls and women was made illegal since the amendment of the law in 1996 by a decree from the Ministry of Interior deeming the practice under the penal code punishable. But young girls and even adults are still enduring such torturous afflictions. Women are still lacking most rights their counterparts enjoy. The law that supposedly protects any victim provides unjust solace to the perpetuator in crime of abduction and sexual violence by exemption of the offender if he marries his victim under the article 291 of the Penal Code. The basic right of any victim is to be protected by the law, yet these discriminatory laws victimize the innocent. These condemnations extend to the basic rights of women. Under the 2003 Unified Labor Law No. 12. Women have access to longer maternity leave under Article 91. Yet this law provides exemption that is unjust in accordance to the convention Egypt signed in 1981. The difference in wages and salary, the economical requirements of the private sector and their own circumstances compel underage girls to work longer hours than is legally stated for salaries below minimum wages. The gap extends to all aspects of a woman’s life: her rights in case of divorce, her right to grant her children the Egyptian nationality, have long been an endurance to these mothers. Some children have found themselves deprived of their right to education as stated by the chart of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Child’ that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th, 1959. In accordance with the Egyptian law in granting and renewing the residency to children of Egyptian woman, the procedure and the cost have proved to be an unbearable financial and administrative endurance.

Although, the law was amended in October 2003 and Egyptian women married to non-Egyptian men could finally grant their children their nationality, not all concerned were privileged to benefit from this law. The ratio of 33 percent, by far the largest group, represent women married to Palestinians. They were excluded using a basis of 1957 resolution by the Arab League not to grant Palestinians citizenship in order to preserve the Palestinian identity. Yet the law included in its final draft this portion. Despite the advancement in their fight, under the law regulating the police (109 of 190071, 91 of 1975, 92 of 1975, 93 of 1975) and the army (69 of1980, 123 of 1981), it does not permit children of non-Egyptian fathers to join these two national institutions.

The inequalities between genders remains too great. Their fight to combat this repression remains great. The rate of illiteracy among women is still high and the changes should start with providing education. The provision of jobs adequate to their pedagogic level is also to be taken in consideration. The road is still long to cover all the aspects that require a long awaited change. It will be a slow one, yet Egypt remains one of the most liberal countries in the middle east. To women, though true change is overdue, it is only a delay in acquiring their full rights as equal citizens.

 

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