CAIRO – Women activists say they won a major step forward with Egypt's new constitution, which enshrined greater rights for women. But months after its passage, they're worrying whether those rights will be implemented or will turn out to be merely ink on paper.
The causes for concern are many. Men hold an overwhelming near-lock on decision-making in politics, and activists say they are doing little to bring about equality. Violence against women in public space has grown over the past three years of turmoil since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. And some activists say the increasingly repressive political climate is stifling chances for democratic reforms that would bring women's rights.
An incident in March underlined how far activists say they still need to go to change public attitudes. After a female student at Cairo University came under mass sexual assault by male students, the university's president, Gaber Nassar, criticized her for the way she was dressed. A well-known TV presenter, Tamir Amin, went on a tirade on his show, saying the student was "dressed like a belly dancer." She was wearing black pants, a long-sleeved pink shirt and a head-scarf.
Amid an uproar on social media, both Nassar and Amin apologized for their comments. But Amin still went on to say women should wear "appropriate" clothing when they go out.
The following week, a law criminalizing sexual harassment was referred to the presidency for review, though the text has yet to be released.
There have been multiple mass sexual assaults on women during protests the past three years. In one notorious incident in 2011, security forces dragged a female protester to the ground, pulled up her top to reveal her blue bra and stomped on her chest. Other female protesters at the time were forced to undergo humiliating "virginity tests" when detained by the military.
Women have also been caught up in the violence since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer and security forces launched a heavy crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Last weekend, a 22-year-old female journalist, Mayada Ashraf, with the newspaper Al-Dustour, was shot to death while she covered clashes between police and Morsi supporters in the Cairo district of Ein Shams. Police have arrested 20 protesters, accusing them of shooting her – but witnesses have raised questions whether it was actually security forces who killed her.
Around 50 other women were among hundreds killed during clashes since the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi protest camps on Aug. 14, and around 240 are among the 16,000 people arrested in the crackdown on Morsi's followers, according to security officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to journalists.
Violence is a "very intimidating weapon" against women participating in public life, said Dalia Abdel-Hameed, gender rights researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent rights group.
More broadly, the crackdown has fueled at atmosphere where criticism is not tolerated. Secular pro-democracy activists and prominent figures critical of the military-backed interim government have been jailed and are on trial for breaking laws barring unlicensed protests. In the media, critics of the government are muted, which has an impact on calls in general for democratic reform, including for women's rights.
"If there is no democratic climate, how would you benefit from these beautiful laws?" said Abdel-Hameed. "It will be the same as under Mubarak: you have a beautiful law but it's not implemented."
Women activists fought hard for gains in the constitution passed in a January referendum, which was a rewrite of a 2012 constitution largely drafted by Islamists during Morsi's one-year presidency.
The document explicitly enshrines equality between the sexes and women's rights to education, work and high political office. It criminalizes violence against women and discrimination on any basis, including gender. It allows women to confer nationality on their children and holds Egypt's government responsible for international obligations under treaties it has ratified, including the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women.
"It's not just more progressive than the 2012 constitution, it's more progressive than the 1971 constitution . from the gender perspective," said Salma el-Naqqash, a member of the Nazra Institute for Feminist Studies.
The provisions are already being tested.
Women have only been allowed to be judges since 2007, and the new constitution guarantees their right to hold high positions in the judiciary. Yet a 2010 court decision barred women judges from the State Council, a powerful judicial body that regulates disputes between individuals and the state and reviews legislation.
After several women were rejected for membership on the council, Mervat Tallawy, head of the state's National Council for Women, said that in January she wrote to the State Council demanding it take on women judges in light of the constitution.
The Council replied by saying her letter "violated appropriateness and manners" and it sought criminal action against the National Council for Women.
Speaking to a conference last month, Tallawy said the "the mentality of the decision-makers . in the current government and the future government as well" is the main obstacle to the carrying out the promises of the constitution.
She pointed to the low representation of women in government. Women, for example, held only two percent of the seats in the last parliament, the lowest in the Arab world. Past parliaments as well have usually seen single-digit percentages of women lawmakers.
"We are angry with the government, with legislators, with the parties, with all officials. We want 150 women in parliament," she said. "We're tired of the government and officials . we'll go to the street," she said.
El-Naqqash said there is a series of concrete steps she wants to see in the near future – the creation of a Commission on Discrimination with real judicial power, particularly to hold the state accountable, as called for under the constitution; more women judges; an electoral law that guarantees the presence of women in parliament and local council, through a party list system with alternating men and women on the list; and the nullification of the draconian protest law, which bars all political gatherings without prior police permission.
She also says gender issues should be mainstreamed across all government bodies. For example, the Interior Ministry should activate a unit specialized in fighting violence against women and "the health sector should take into account reproductive rights. Health clinics should provide contraception and treatment for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases)."
But, she adds, "women's issues are never a priority for anyone."
She noted that parts of the constitution may make enforcing the women's rights provisions harder. For example, the charter increases the power of the judiciary over its own affairs, protecting it from political interference but also isolating it from any criticism or reform.
"They are giving a lot of immunity to the judiciary to the point that it will make it very hard to realize these rights and freedoms," she said. "You cannot hold them accountable for enforcing these rights."