Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Egypt and Democracy: Women's Rights in a Democratic Egypt and the Sharia Glass Ceiling

Valantina Cattane wrote in Egypt's Al Masry Al Youm about the struggle for women's equality in the new democratic Egypt: Path to Women's Equality Passes Through Constitution.  

The 1971 Egyptian Constitution, currently suspended, includes articles that ostensibly ensure equality and outlaw discrimination based on gender, ethnic origin, language, religion or belief. But according to Egyptian gender experts, the situation is far more complicated -- and discriminatory -- than a quick reading of the old constitution suggests.

And if women’s rights are to be guaranteed in post-Mubarak Egypt, the new version, written by a committee selected by the parliament elected in September 2011, will require substantial changes on laws regulating gender.

She points out that Article II of the 1971 Constitution was included as part of the amendments for referendum on March 19.  Article II is the section of the Constitution that states that Islam is the state religion and that Sharia law is the basis of law in Egypt.   Article II was also the contentious section that had various Imams in mosques across Egypt calling on their congregations to go out and vote on the grounds that a "no" on the referendum would vacate this article and endanger Islam and Sharia in Egypt.

For women's rights and equality, Article II leaves the space wide open for the disenfranchising of women, exploitation and even oppression.

According to Douaa Hussein, a human rights and gender consultant, the misinterpretation of sharia law is the main factor leading to discrimination against women and minority groups, specifically when it comes to personal status law, which determines women's rights to ownership, inheritance, education, employment and criminal law. Hussein and some other rights advocates support the abolition of Article 2 in the forthcoming constitution.

Others believe that the adoption of more egalitarian Islamic jurisprudence would be better suited, insisting Islam is not the problem, but that interpretation of Sharia is.

Marwa Sharafeldin, co-founder of the Network for Women's Rights Organizations in Egypt, would prefer to see religion as a force supporting equality by adopting Islamic jurisprudence that promotes equality, as family law does in Morocco.

“We need to do the same, to build on already existing egalitarian Islamic jurisprudence and develop it ourselves too,” said Sharafeldin. “Doing otherwise is like using Islam to justify inequality and discrimination, which is far from reality and does not do justice to Islam.”
The question, she believes, is conservative judges and law makers who would be intent on interpreting Sharia as strictly as possible.

The real problem is that any freedom or equality, including the protection of women's rights, persons and property, requires "interpretation" of sharia law as opposed to laws that expressly forbid discrimination or insisting on equality.  Even putting in writing in the law that discrimination on the issue of gender is not allowed, where sharia law exists to govern every other aspect of law, a judge could simply say that a ruling that was detrimental to women's rights was not discriminatory because it was based on Sharia law.  In essence, the appearance of Sharia alongside civil law is contradictory and destructive to any civil law that it can abrogate. 

Ms. Sharafeldin is fighting two battles at once.  Hoping to modernize her religion, Islam, while protecting women's rights. 

An example of this problem of Sharia mitigating civil rights (Sharia glass ceiling) in modern Egypt:

This kind of discrimination affects other legal frameworks beyond the constitution, as well. Women are not allowed to occupy positions in State Council.

“Last year, on 15 February, 334 male judges voted against the appointment of females to judicial posts during a State Council General Assembly meeting,” Al Aswad said.

There are currently 30 female judges in Egypt, all appointed by presidential decree in 2007. But Al Aswad argues that the formal law does not allow women to apply normally nor be promoted to become judges, as their male colleagues are.

Women are also prohibited from working in public prosecution.
Women working in public prosecution probably has several antiquated detractors including working long hours and working side by side with male colleagues or witness in close collaboration, unchaperoned, while investigating or developing a case.  Both, per conservative views, likely expose women and men to the temptation of "adultery" which, in Egypt, is not only a matter of married people indulging in sex outside of their marital vows, but also any unmarried persons having sex outside of marital vows.

The final issue would be exposing women to criminals who would be interviewed in the process of a case and put them in danger.  All ideas that are meant to support some form of moral "good society" where women are in need of protection from men as well as their own "sinful" prerogatives.  Likewise protecting men from the "unsavory wiles of women" that the Quran, thus, Sharia law, insists is women's lot from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to various other tales of women allegedly using their attributes and evil genius of Lilith to bring down men and start wars. 

In essence, Sharia law puts a veil on women, firmly establishing a glass ceiling, even if civil law denies it.

Read the rest of the article here.

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