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Egypt: Women face setbacks in rights campaign

Once at the forefront of the campaign to improve the lot of Arab women, women in Egypt have suffered setbacks since an Islamist wave unfolded here more than 20 years ago, despite a few fresh gains.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST

Once at the forefront of the campaign to improve the lot of Arab women, women in Egypt have suffered setbacks since an Islamist wave unfolded here more than 20 years ago, despite a few fresh gains.

More women wear the Islamic headscarf than ever before in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Once they reach puberty, girls are forced to wear it, by religious conviction or as a result of social pressure.

And the Islamists have gained a potent symbol of their conquest of public space.

The headscarf is worn by none other than the granddaughter of Hoda Shaarawi, a pioneering Egyptian feminist who renounced the headscarf in 1921 after leading the first women's protest against British occupation two years earlier.

Employees in modern economic sectors such as banking, services, advertising, communications and insurance often come to work with their heads covered even if they drive their own cars.

In the universities, the number of female students covering their heads has climbed dramatically in the last two decades.

These active, sometimes militant, young women have organized protests against the new French law banning the headscarf in French public schools.

Meanwhile, there are only two female ministers in the 32-member cabinet and fewer than a dozen women in the 454-seat parliament, dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party. Then-president Anwar Sadat, before he was assassinated in 1981, tried to introduce a law setting aside 30 seats for women.

"There are definitely sebacks over the past 20 years. Islamists are the main reason. The other is (political) stagnation," said Hesham Kassem, president of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights.

However, for the first time, a woman was appointed judge on the influential constitutional court and another was appointed director general of the Egyptian Museum, both in the last few months.

With new divorce and nationality laws, Egyptian women have made legal gains under the influence of President Hosni Mubarak's wife Suzanne Mubarak, who is trying to foster a new female elite on which to bestow a political role.

In an interview Sunday in the women's magazine "Nisf Al-Dunia" (Half of the Sky), she regretted the lack of women's political representation and attributed it to the "absence of a popular base" favoring the election of women.

"We hope to nurture women political executives ... so they can participate and win votes," Suzanne Mubarak was quoted as saying.

In an advance, a new nationality law was adopted that allows a woman, under some conditions, to pass her citizenship to her children if their father is foreign.

Meanwhile, a new family affairs court is being set up to deal with divorce and related cases.

Until now, such cases were handled in ordinary courts, which meant divorce, custody and inheritance cases were held up for years, with women and children paying the price.

But Kasem warned that such gains were "initiated by the government for political reasons" amid international pressure for reform and that they did not reflect changes in society.

Nonetheless, he said, "these things can take on a momentum of their own."

And despite a new law against female circumcision, Egyptian girls are still plagued by the practice of genital mutilation, which is nonetheless more a feature of African than Arab countries.

Human rights associations say the vast majority of girls undergo circumcision in Egypt -- which involves cutting off the clitoris to inhibit the sex drive and make girls suitable for the day they are married.

In September last year, a 14-year-old girl died after an operation in unhygienic conditions.

After Sudan and Somalia, Egypt is considered to have the highest excision rates in the world.