What Egypt women want
BY SAHAR AZIZ
Cairo: Whether before or after the revolution, Egyptian women’s primary concern has been the lack of economic and social development. A poll by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies found that religion is not the most pressing concern for Arab women after the “Arab Spring.” Rather the recent findings on Arabs’ attitudes towards women’s rights, religion, and other social issues in Muslim majority countries corroborate the notion that economic challenges take precedence over all other issues notwithstanding the historic revolutions.
Nonetheless, Egyptian women’s representation in governance is starkly absent. Despite accounting for nearly a third of Egypt’s protesters, Egyptian women have been unable to achieve the reforms attained by women of other Arab countries. For example, the Tunisian government required half of each party’s electoral lists to be made up of women for the 2011 Constituent Assembly election. This resulted in women winning a quarter of the Assembly’s seats. Women in Egypt, however, made up only about 1 percent of Egypt’s recently dissolved parliament. Additionally, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has raised the concern of many women’s rights proponents regarding the impact of the current conditions on Egyptian women; while they were instrumental in the revolution, it has not resulted in any gains in women’s economic and political rights.
Men and women across the Arab region unanimously believe the present state of their lives to be worse than before the uprising. The downward trend of optimism is a serious problem facing each government. In contrast, Egypt is the only country where men and women believe their lives will improve within five years if “improvement” is measured by GDP, literacy levels, and human rights. Egyptians are more likely to say the national economy is and will be getting better. But both men and women rate economic issues as being the most important problems facing their families ahead of any gender-specific issues.
The biggest challenge to Egyptian women participating in public life may be perceptions of security and respect. Before the revolution, 76 percent said they felt safe walking alone in the streets at night. After the revolution, only approximately 57 percent feel that way. Of the women who said they felt safe walking, only 37 percent say they are unafraid to openly express their views. Of the women who stated they do not feel safe walking alone at night, 45 percent say they’re afraid to openly express their views. It’s important to note these figures even though there has been no increase in reported crime in every Arab country with the exception of Tunisia.
Although educational conditions, including the ratio of women’s years of schooling to men’s years of schooling, have improved significantly, Arab women’s participation in the labor market and politics remains the lowest in the world. The participation rate of women in Arab countries had been inching along at a snail pace of 0.17 percent since the 1970s. Moreover, low participation rates in government stunts women’s ability to influence and shape public policy. Across the region, women occupied 9 percent of all parliamentary seats which is the lowest of any region and lower than the world average by 10 percentage points.
Despite this reality, Arab women and men largely believe women should have the same legal rights as men. In Egypt, 86 percent of women believe this while 79 percent of men agree. A statistical tie, 88 percent of Egyptian men and 89 percent of Egyptian women believe both boys and girls should have equal access to education. Despite this, girls in Arab countries generally lag behind boys in basic literacy rates and women are 20 percent more likely than men to have no formal education. The Gallup poll found men’s support of women’s equal legal status and right to hold any job was positively linked to the level of life satisfaction, employment, and other measures of economic and social development. The more men support women’s participation in the workforce, the more likely women are to work in professional jobs.
Despite the common perception that religion is anathema to women’s rights, this is not the case. In fact, the figures show adherence to a religion and women’s rights are compatible. A majority of both men and women want some level of religious influence in law. Fifty percent of men want sharia as the only source of new legislation and 37 percent want sharia as one among many sources of law. Interestingly, 44 percent of women want sharia as the only source while an additional 38 percent want it as a source. Egyptian men and women expressed similar levels of support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or the Salafi’s Nour Party.
In the end, the poll disproves multiple misconceptions in America about women’s priorities. Contrary to popular belief, Egyptian women and Arab women at large are more concerned with equal opportunity at work and attaining high quality education. Academic debates about whether Egypt should be an Islamic state has been trumped by the need to provide for one’s family.
Egypt’s new government should take heed. Egyptians, both men and women, expect tangible improvements in the economy. Anything less could lead to their political demise.
Sahar Aziz is the president of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association (ww.earla.org). She is Associate Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law. You can follow her on twitter at @saharazizlaw.