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Egyptian Referendum Sets Wheels in Motion for Egyptian Feminist Groups

First free elections in 30 years 

Photo courtesy of the UN's Women Library

Following the first free elections in the country in over 30 years Egypt’s most recent political advances were women in Egypt are preparing themselves to make an impact on the political stage. The positive feeling about the election reverberated around the country and the impact was felt in all aspects from share trading in the market to sales in the shopping precincts.

Positive sense of forward motion

Just over a year since the February Revolution in 2011, the referendum held on March 19th, was viewed as tangible proof of progress in the country and a move from the reign of the Moubarak regime. There was a clear sense of excitement across the country and, although not unanimous, there was a tremendous swell of support for those who went to exercise their vote. About 40 % of those eligible (over 18 million people) trekked to the ballot stations to exercise their new found right for a legitimate say in the country’s new constitution.  Feedback about the event reflected the excitement felt by all involved and social network sites were alive with positive posts and comments.

Significant numbers of female voters

Probably the most significant feature of the electorate was the huge swathe of female voters who participated. Voting was sex segregated and it was clear at some ballot stations, from the size of the lines queuing to vote, that the number of female votes exceeded the number of males. 24-year-old Dina Wahba, a political science graduate, commented on her readiness to vote: “I come from a very politically active family, but I had never had a chance to vote,” she described her experience as a hugely positive one, “I woke up very early, like a kid on her first day of school … It was very organized and the policeman was very courteous.”

Debate about the timing of the elections

There has been much debate about the timing of the upcoming elections, decided in the referendum, which will be held this year to decide on the new government. 73% of those who voted were in favour of the early elections, but there those who have voiced concerns that this will hand an unfair advantage to the established political parties. It is felt that with the elections being held so soon new political movements which were suppressed under the old regime will not have enough time to gather impetus and flourish. As a result parties the longer standing parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party will have a much stronger foothold.

Good news for feminist groups

The positive news about the electoral process has generally been well met by female groups within Egypt and many are preparing themselves to make a clear voice in the coming election. The percentage of females involved in the post revolutionary government within Egypt is miniscule and has taken a retrograde step within recent times. Even those involved at this level are not seen to properly represent the views being put forward by progressive feminist politicians.

Women in Egyptian politics

One such figure is Azza el Garf, who is a representative of the Freedom and Justice Party. This is a political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and much of the views it represents and puts forward are allied to regressive male Muslim values. El Garf is committed to change and progress for females and wants to see a wider female representation in politics. She recently commented “People here think women can be a doctor, go to university, be a teacher or an engineer, but people still think ‘women are no good at politics.’ We want to change this view.”  This progressive view of women in politics is not complimented by her views on women in society. In this respect she holds the party line of the family-first role of women in society. She is even in favour of female cutting which was outlawed in Egyptian legislature in 2008.

The Egyptian Feminist Union

The voice of Egyptian women is also gathering some momentum in advance of the election through the rekindling of some organizations that had foundered over the past 30 years. One such organization is the Egyptian Feminist Union which was originally founded in 1923. “We have to defend whatever rights we have and we have to go forward to equality and equity,” says group Chair person Hoda Badran. “Women should have a say if any public issue or decision has to be made.”

This post was written by Lisa Hardcastle, a freelance writer and follower of Our Other Sisters.  If you would like to write a feature, please get in touch.

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