The National Democratic Party (NDP) is currently championing two initiatives affecting women’s rights: amending the personal status law and instituting a quota for women’s representation in the lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly. The first initiative aims at modernizing an outdated personal status law and increasing gender equality. The second would raise the number of elected parliamentary seats to 500 from the current 444, allocating 56 seats to women from all of Egypt’s governorates. The NDP says that the principle of “citizenship”—announced as the basis of all NDP political reforms at party conferences for the last several years—motivates both initiatives.
In the short term, a new personal status law may have the greater impact. The NDP has prepared a draft law, which has not yet been made public but will be presented to the People’s Assembly during its current session (i.e. within the next few months). The new draft law will unify the procedures of the family court and place each case in a single file, containing all stages of litigation, for the judge.
Several groups, particularly the semi-governmental National Council for Women and National Council for Childhood and Motherhood as well as some non-governmental organizations, have put forward specific proposals to the NDP. For example, the National Council for Women proposed amendments regarding the right of parental visitation. Currently, a child may only meet with a parent who does not have custody in a public place. The Council has also called for a change in procedures to determine alimony payments. Typically, the woman accuses the man of obscene wealth, while he pleads abject poverty, with a judge forced to choose between the two. The Council has also suggested amendments procedures for litigation in personal status matters, based on advice from legal experts regarding gaps in the law.
The new law is also expected to unify marriage laws and establish procedures for distinguishing between religions; conversions between Christianity and Islam, sometimes to escape religious strictures on marriage and divorce, have created scandals and even violence in recent years. Reportedly, the Ministry of Justice has coordinated closely with Coptic Pope Shenouda in order to incorporate the church’s suggestions regarding provisions for marriage of Christians.
NGOs have played an important role in documenting the current living conditions of women and problems such as the disintegration of the family, divorce, working mothers, and street children, to demonstrate that the current family laws are not meeting the needs of women. They have also worked to unify efforts to create pressure for the passage of a new personal status law.
A parliamentary quota for women is not a new idea in Egypt; in 1979,30 (of a total 360) parliamentary seats were reserved for women, but the provision was discarded in a 1986 electoral law revision. Restoring a quota now would have many advantages. It would provide to women the number of seats that they would occupy were it not for societal restrictions, which have resulted in the People’s Assembly having female representation of only 1.2 percent, with 2.7 percent in the partially appointed Shura Council. There is also a noticeable decline in the level of female participation in all political institutions—parliamentary councils, political parties, professional and trade unions, NGOs—evidence of discrimination. Clearly political life is in need of female expertise, which will help society develop by raising awareness of the problems and needs of half of it members.
While the NDP appears serious about increasing the number of women in parliament, it is not clear yet exactly which seats will be designated for women or how they will be selected. Will it be, for example, by means of an individual candidacy system, in which two women from each governorate are nominated (one a professional and another a laborer), a party list system, or some combination of the two? The quota is thus part of a larger discussion of overall reform of the oft-revised Egyptian electoral system. But in any case, it seems likely that a quota for women will be in place in time for the 2010 parliamentary elections. The question is no longer whether more women will enter parliament, but rather how this will be accomplished.
Iman Bibars is an international expert in gender issues and president of the Association of the Development and Enhancement of Women in Cairo. Kevin Burnham translated this article from Arabic.