Egypt: Women of the house

Al-Ahram Weekly
Divergent as competitors at the upcoming parliamentary elections may be, Reem Leila finds out, female under-representation is one thing they have in common.
For years women have been encouraged not only to vote but to run for elections.
Their political empowerment is touted as a necessary aspect of development, whether by the National Council for Women (NCW) or any number of political and civil institutions. And of all the positions they could assume by vote, membership of the People's Assembly -- for which elections are held every five years -- is probably the most significant.

Yet the upcoming People's Assembly elections, starting this week, feature very few female candidates -- a fact commentators have explained by pointing out that female political participation is among the least addressed items on women's empowerment agendas.

In his Al-Minya address during the presidential electoral campaign, President Hosni Mubarak described the situation as "unfair not only to women but to all of society", pointing out the triumph of Fayza Al-Tahnawi, last term's Al-Minya representative, as evidence. But the National Democratic Party (NDP) has nominated no more than six out of a total of 444 candidates who are women. With the Tagammu Party nominating four out of 20, the opposition may seem to be doing proportionally better, then again the Wafd Party nominated no women at all. The NCW had hoped for an improvement on last term's 1.6 per cent female representation -- the result of five out of 100 candidates elected and four appointed by President Mubarak, who used his constitutional right to intervene; even in 1995, no less than 87 women ran for parliamentary elections. Farkhonda Hassan, NCW secretary-general, had hoped representation would rise to 10 per cent this year -- it distresses her that the percentage is falling. "The council has did everything in its power to impress it on people and parties alike that it's crucial for female participation in all walks of life to increase -- and particularly so in political matters." Though he made no explicit commitment to improving female representation in parliament, she said, the president was obviously keen on it. And up to the last minute, she insisted, the NCW had exerted "official and unofficial" pressure of every conceivable form on political parties -- urging them to nominate at least those of their members who had received expert candidacy training in NCW courses.

The left-wing Tagammu Party President Rifaat El-Said thought political participation was "the only way society will come to accept and grow accustomed to female participation", suggesting that the NDP should evacuate constituencies for women and calling on the NCW to conceive of female candidates as its own representatives, as a party would. Al-Ahram writer Amina Shafiq, a Tagammu nominee, agreed: "I was encouraged by my family and party colleagues and by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak calling on women to participate. Though I did not win the 2000 elections, I found the challenge stimulating. Still, I was expecting greater financial support, especially from the NCW. I have had to raise my own funds and produce promotional material -- Ramadan fasting calendars, for example -- out of my own pockets. I've had to overcome many problems. Fliers and banners are routinely torn out, which means producing new ones -- and neither the party, which is poor, nor my person can afford such expenses." Hassan's response sounded a little too straightforward for comfort: the NCW simply does not have the legal cover to provide candidates with financial support. Though political participation will figure prominently on the NCW's 2005-2015 empowerment programme, the result remains in large part dependent on progress made on the socio- economic development front; a coordination committee will nonetheless help facilitate contact between the NCW and political parties in the next 10 years, and part of its proviso is ensuring that parties will implement programmes promoting women's capabilities and contributions in varies fields. Ahmed Al-Sabahi, Al-Umma Party head, says the party nominated 10 women in order to help bolster the credibility of female political participation.

Nadia Al-Sabahi, women's secretariat head at the party and its candidate for Abdeen, believes under-representation is a result of patriarchal culture -- a problem that affects government and parties alike; it is a question, she says, that goes beyond the scope of politics. She too had expected rather more NCW support, however, and suggested that the NCW should have a role in determining the number of female candidates -- and selecting those who are qualified to run, as well as managing their campaign. To which Hassan pointed out that the NCW is a government body that cannot risk supporting, let alone choosing candidates who might turn out to be, perish the thought, against the government. Surely that would be the whole point of opposition? For his part Abdel-Moneim Al-Aasar, Egyptian Green Party head, has no woman issues as such; some 25 per cent of his party's nominees are female, and he insists that the only problem is women's reluctance to engage in "the fierce electoral battle", a task he too thinks the NCW should help with. Noaman Gomaa is as disturbingly matter-of-fact as Hassan: the liberal Wafd Party nominated no women, he says, because none of its female members are qualified -- and the party cannot support a candidate who does not even know how to run.

Issue No. 767, 2 - 9 November 2005