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Egyptian women

Cornelia Wegerhoff / cdDecember 21, 2012

Preliminary reports suggest that Egyptians have approved a new constitution in a referendum process. One lawyer believes that the consequences for Egypt's women will be wide-ranging and severe.

An older Egyptian woman wearing a black headscarf passes her vote to two men sitting at a table in a small room. (Photo:Amr Nabil/AP/dapd)
Image: AP

She's a feminist and a Muslim, she fights for women's rights wearing beige slacks and a bright red headscarf. Nihad Abu El Konsam is perhaps the best evidence that Egypt's women can be followers of the Koran and yet still see eye-to-eye with their male counterparts.

Yet Egypt's Nile region has always been the exception, the lawyer and chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) admits. Abu El Konsam worries that the Islamists currently in power in Cairo will use a newly drafted constitution to reverse the forward march of Egyptian history.

"It's a disaster. There isn't a single article in the draft constitution that mentions the rights of women," said Nihan Abu El Konsam. "We lawyers have made numerous proposals for constitutional articles that would make up for the social and cultural problems in our society and would allow women to finally achieve equal rights. But the Islamists ignored it."

Only in article 10 of the Egyptian constitutional draft is the role of women in Egypt briefly touched upon - and only then in their "important role as a mother," the lawyer said.

A bearded, Middle Eastern man wearing a red hair dress holds an opened Koran with Arabic text toward other protestors at a large outdoor demonstration. (Photo: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood chants slogans from a KoranImage: AFP/Getty Images

'This constitution sets Egypt 100 years back'

The fight over the new Egpytian constitution has deeply divided the most populous country in the Middle East. The opposition accuses Islamist groups of attempting to turn Egypt into a theocracy. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Salafists in turn insinuate publicly that the opposition - along with courts and media - is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, himself a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Violent clashes between these groups have left more than a dozen dead and hundreds wounded.

In spite of the violence President Morsi continues to adhere to original time plan for the referendum. The first round of voting on December 15 resulted in a slim majority in support of the contentious document, and following a second round of voting on Saturday 22, initial reports suggest the constitution has been approved.

Nihad Abu El Konsam voted against it. "This constitution will set Egypt 100 years back," she said. The fact that the constitution's is based primarily on Sharia law is not the problem. "The fundamental principles of Sharia law are equality and human dignity - the same principles all religion," said Nihad Abu El Konsam.

Yet the constitution is extremely imprecise. It leaves an "open door," Abu El Konsam believes, for extreme fundamentalist interpretation and discrimination against women and other Egyptian citizens.

An olive-skinned man with a short-cropped beard, eye-glasses, and a tie and business jacket stands in frnot of a red, white and black Egyptian flag. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Mursi called in tanks to stop pre-referendum violenceImage: Getty Images

'Every citizen is equal' isn't enough

Nor does the Muslim Brotherhood's assertion of citizen "equality" within the constitution give solace to the women's right activist. In her office, she pulls out a stack of case-files. The same 'equal rights' constitutional article, Abu El Konsam says, has been in the Egyptian constitution since 1971.

"And yet since that time, for 40 years now, women have suffered discrimination in all areas. Even today we don't have female judges in Egypt holding the same high-level positions as men. Women aren't even allowed into some industries. There's discrimination in income levels and education. Unemployment levels are four times higher for women than for men. We don't even have a law against abuse in the household. When we do go to court, the offender is acquitted."

The lawyer believes that the Islamists have "tailored" the constitution to meet their own demands. She also worries that genital mutilation of young girls and women could once more be legalized, that the age of marital consent might be dropped to nine or 11 years of age, or the right to divorce once more thrown into question.

"We're still expecting a tough fight," Nihad Abu El Konsam said.

A clean-cut Egyptian man wearing a bright blue sweatshirt and modern eyeglasses points at an injured man next to him on a stretcher. (Photo: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Paramedics attend to an anti-Mursi supporter at the presidential palaceImage: Reuters

A literal slap in the face

The fight will not be limited to words only. When critics of President Morsi gathered in front of the presidential palace to protest decrees of expanded powers and the hastily approved constitution on the evening of December 5, demonstrators were brutally attacked by thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamists have shown themselves willing to step not only on the rights of women, but also on the women themselves. A young political activist named Ola Shahba appeared on Egyptian television on December 6 with her face bruised and puffy.

"They hit me with sticks from all sides, they stepped on me, they strangled me. They groped me - my body, my breasts. They held me captive for hours. I never would have thought that the so-called Islamists would do such a thing."