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Can Egyptian Women Have Both Civil Rights And Political Freedom?

December 5, 2012

gender, higab

What kind of laws and regulations governing women’s action will be enacted by a new, more populist Egyptian government?

I confess–I have thus far read only one of the papers in the IDS Bulleting special issue on the Egyptian Revolution.

It was Hania Sholkamy’s article “The Jaded Gender and Development Paradigm of Egypt

I mostly read it because as I was cutting and pasting the abstracts into my post last week, I noticed her name and thought, “Hey! I know Hania!”

And it was worth the read. Hania Sholkamy’s piece offers an interesting reflection on the complexities of gender rights. My favorite quotation:

For decades, development paradigms and programmes have adopted the values of human well-being and dignity, which are both profoundly political projects, while at the same time pretending that development is an apolitical venture. This  paradox is evinced by the ability of development practitioners to claim that their rights-driven programmes have had   impacts and successes even when these self-same programmes existed in the midst of autocratic and unjust polities.

Sholkamy then describes one of the ways this paradox has played out in Egypt. Rights won under authoritarianism—the al-khol law that allows women unilateral right to divorce, the right of mothers to retain custody of their children in divorce cases after the age of seven, and the cancelation of beit el Ta’a under which police could force women who left their marital homes to return to their husbands—are all under fire and in question under democratic transition (“democratic” being used here to refer to legally elected representative government).

Although women ran for Parliament, Parliamentary quotas for women were scrapped, and no women were included in the committees formed to make recommendations on transition or Constitutional reform.

The National Council for Women has been effectively disbanded, tarred with the brush of being a Mubarak regime hangover, and no alternative counterpart has been created to act as a national mechanism for women’s voices and concerns.

The disturbing implication is that women’s rights, at least as they have been defined by the west and endorsed by educated middle and upper class women in Egypt, may have fared better under a Western-leaning dictatorship than they will under a popular democracy.

One way to think about this might be thus: Mubarak, as dictator, represented the ultimate patriarch, the as-said who could magnanimously bestow rights upon women without ever endangering his own masculine authority and power. With the demise of Mubarak, we have millions of patriarchically-thinking voters (including women) who may be quite willing to use their newfound political power to vote away those rights.


Sholkamy, Hania. 2012. The Jaded Gender and Development Paradigm of Egypt. IDS Bulletin 43(1): 94–98.

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