In recent history, women’s legal rights in the Arab World have often required the patronage of elite women. Initiatives by kings’ or (as in Egypt) presidents’ wives have frequently been a necessary precondition not only to put women’s issues on the agenda, but to ensure their implementation. As a result of this approach, certain patterns have defined the development of the women’s movement throughout the Arab world. Having a “Mother of the Nation” in the form of a Suzanne Mubarak or a Jihan Sadat (both of whom positioned themselves as patrons of women’s movement) implies that ordinary women lack the ability to make their own needs heard to the ruling elite—giving the impression that ordinary women do not care about their rights. But can a spokeswoman for the “woman in the street” really emerge from among the upper classes? 

In the 1950s, then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser initiated a period of social and political improvement regarding women’s equality without any input on the part of his wife. And while women were given the right to vote in 1956 and were incorporated into the workforce due to these efforts at modernization, Nasser’s integration of women was deficient in the private sphere; there was no attempt to reform family law or to improve women’s position within the family—possibly because it was considered too controversial. One could even go one step further and claim that, in the absence of a strong female proponent of reform, the private sphere itself remained untouched; Article 8 of the 1971 constitution guaranteed the equality of all Egyptian citizens politically, but it did not extend this principal to family law.

Since then, the women’s movement would continue to rely on the presence of an elite patron; the only novelty since the early 1950’s being that such patrons need not be exclusively male—as in Nasser's case. And with their wives championing these causes, presidents have since circumvented discursive parliamentary process by passing laws either during parliamentary recess or by decree. An example of this was Law 44 of 1979—commonly known as “Jihan’s Law.” The law was eventually declared unconstitutional “in retrospect” because it was enforced by presidential decree. The content of the law (which, among other things, granted women the ability to apply for divorce from their husbands for marrying a second wife, for example) also made it very unpopular. Subsequently, a watered-down version of this amendment to the family law was introduced to the legislature in 1985 under Mubarak. 

Recently, however, one of the most wide-reaching reforms of Egyptian family law—“the Khul Law”—was enacted in 2000. This law gave women the right to a no-fault, unilateral divorce; previously, only men had the right to file for divorce without naming the grounds of separation. This was a significant step towards leveling the playing field between men and women and one dare say towards gender equality. In the same year, the National Council for Women (NCW) was set up by presidential decree and appointed then-First Lady Suzanne Mubarak as its first secretary-general. Technically a civil society group, however NCW’s relationship to civil society as such, has always been opaque. Without detracting from the gains achieved by this body, one still has to pose the question: why is it that positive, legal change for women has traditionally been introduced—or rather, enforced—in a top-down manner? 

All this means that due to structural and procedural mechanisms related to the implementation of women’s rights the future may well look bleak outlook in this regard. The Muslim Brotherhood has no explicit interest in deepening gender equality. Prior to the ratification of the constitution, Article 36 (which explicitlystated  the equality of men and women) was removed on November 29—and thus did not appear in the final draft constitution put to referendum this past December.  

There are other related controversies surrounding the Constitutional Assembly and the formulation of the new constitution—and they are quite telling. It is certainly no coincidence that one of the first delegates to withdraw from this body was Manal Al-Tibi, who represented the liberal women’s and human rights perspective in one person. Had one followed parliamentary debates in Egypt prior to its dissolution mid-year, one would have been shocked to discover such items on the agenda as lowering the legal age of marriage for girls to 9 years—or the reversal of the no-fault divorce option for women. Had ordinary women been involved setting the agenda for the improvement of their rights the issues discussed may well have looked quite different.

It does, indeed, seem that Arab women require a spokeswoman from the political elite to make their claims heard. But the ones presently available do not bode well for women in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world. “Om Ahmed,” as Egypt’s First Lady Naglaa Ali Mahmoud likes to be known, embodies the Islamic dichotomy between the public and private roles of men and women; “Mrs. Morsi” is typical of the Islamist ideal of a woman confined to the private realm of housewife and mother. Will she be the one to champion women’s rights and gender equality? This couldn’t be more different than the self-perception of Zeinab al-Ghazali, a noteworthy female proponent of political Islam and founder of the Muslim Women's Association. The latter was a lifelong public and political figure—to the point of refusing to merge this organization (at the request of founder Hassan al-Banna) with the Brotherhood for fear of a loss of autonomy. Conversely, Om Ahmed couldn’t be more different and is entirely defined by her private role as a mother and wife. 

Still, the questions remain: why did the NCW need a First Lady as its primary patron? What is it that qualifies elite women to represent the interests of (Egyptian) women in general? And why is it that women from the center of society or that prominent members of the civil society community aren’t received in the same manner as the spouses of autocratic rulers? These questions do not necessarily refer to women’s issues alone but also pertain to other areas of civil rights. The time is right for activists to step off the streets and represent their points of view in the political arena. The present situation is an opportunity for Arab women to prove that they can take power into their own hands in the absence of patronage; this means occupying formal political office and calling as activists for accountability and more input from civil society. The onus is now on Arab women to take that fight to a new level and organize themselves in the formal and informal political spheres without the help of an autocratic mistress. 

Lubna Azzam is a Ph. D. candidate at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt and a research fellow in the “Elite Change and New social Mobilization in the Arab World” project at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.