Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—The rumors surrounding amendment of articles in Egypt’s constitution regarding the status of women, which some fear might conflict with Islamic law, have become highlight controversial in Egypt.
To complicate matters further, the women’s council and similar groups are seen by many as remnants of the Mubarak regime, which has many raising concerns about their impact on the direction of Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics and constitution.
In this context, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Dr. Mervat Tallawy, the secretary general of the National Council of Egyptian Women and a member of the Committee of 50 in charge of amending the constitution. Dr. Tallawy is one the most recognizable Egyptian women in the world today. She is a former Undersecretary General of the United Nations and has worked in the Ministry of Social Insurance. Her successful career makes her views especially important in the Egyptian arena.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: There are fears that some of the tools that might be used to improve gender equality will conflict with Islam’s law of private inheritance. Can you comment on that?
Dr. Mervat Tallawy: First of all, all of us in the Committee of 50 are constructing the constitution without prejudice to the principles of Islamic law. We did not seek to include to any rights outside Islamic Law. Second, the commission includes a large number of Sheikhs and scholars from Al-Azhar who are fully aware of the provisions and principles of Islamic law. I do not think that any of them would be content with a law that runs contrary to Islamic law. The Islamic Shari’a was the first to establish equality between men and women, which did not exist before the advent of Islam. Regarding the inheritance law, Islam made women equal in this area. There are many instances in which women are entitled to higher inheritances than men. All of these claims to the contrary are made without an accurate understanding of the demands of Islamic law.
Q: What are the current priorities of the National Council of Egyptian Women?
The council is working to focus its attention on a number of subjects in the coming months, including payment of women in the labor market and ways to stimulate production that might contribute to Egypt’s emergence from its current economic crisis. We have five million women who provide for 20 million citizens, and we must raise their level of income. The council will also focus on the issue of illiteracy, because we cannot promote the development and advancement of women while facing a 40 percent illiteracy rate in Egypt. We will also reconsider the services provided to women in regards to healthcare. Finally, we will draw attention to marginalized groups in the community, such as women in slums, older women and disabled women.
Q: To what extent do political considerations affect the auspices of the council with regards to mothers and relatives of victims of violence in Egypt?
The council is Egypt’s government mechanism for improving the condition of Egyptian women and defending their rights, regardless of political affiliation. We emphasize that these martyrs are in the hearts of all Egyptians, and they will not have shed their blood in vain. We will go to any length to protect their rights from the terrorists who condone killing innocent people to accomplish their goals. The council has continually provided them with a range of financial assistance to help them establish small, income-generating projects.
Q: Is the council exposed to harassment or obstacles from the Muslim Brotherhood?
The National Women’s Council has fought intense battles against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Through those fights, we have been subjected to a number different pressures during the performance of the council’s national duty, but we have not abandoned the national responsibility to 44 million Egyptian women, and most of those battles were over the constitution. The council has fought fiercely to prevent the adoption of the old constitution, and has made a strong effort to uphold perhaps one of the most important promises: to oppose the formation of a constitution that includes only one point of view. Because of that, the council nominated several women to participate in the formation of the constitution, but not to remove anything from it.
The council announced its national vision on the country’s constitution, but that vision has been ignored and rejected. Therefore the council announced its rejection of the draft constitution based on human rights and freedom concerns, particularly regarding those of women and children in the family. This prompted the council to encourage Egyptians to vote “no” on the flawed constitution. Perhaps one of the most prominent manifestations of harassment suffered by the council was curtailing its role in the institution of the presidency by selecting Dr. Bakinam Cherkaoui, assistant to the president responsible for political affairs, to speak on behalf of Egypt during the opening session of the Commission on the status of women in the United Nations. She also took over responsibility for conducting negotiations with member states and participating delegations to reach an international consensus on how to stop violence against women and girls. Meanwhile, this presidential advisor tried to suggest that the system favors women and that the defunct constitution was exemplary in granting women rights and freedoms.
Q: In your opinion, what was the worst decision President Mursi made regarding women and families?
The Mursi era witnessed the decision to ratify the now-defunct constitution, which came entirely without consulting women. That constitution fell short of its goals, especially in regards to equal rights, the criminalization of discrimination, and the creation of equal opportunities for women. This constitution also excluded the only female on the Supreme Constitutional Court, Chancellor Tahani Jabali, who had been on the court since 2003. It was simply the latest chapter in a series of oppressions against women. Some officials adopted a policy of preventing women from achieving leadership and executive positions, either through arbitrarily removing them or through limiting their rights to be promoted to certain job positions. This reflected the trend of systematic expulsion of women from leadership positions.
Regarding the election law passed by the now-dissolved Shura Council, it did not provide mandatory percentages for female participation in candidate lists. If applied, this law would have further contributed to international reports of the continued deterioration of conditions in Egypt. Egypt has fallen to the bottom of the list of Arab states and is ranked 134th out of 188 countries regarding representation of women in parliament, where women hold just two percent of the seats. Some extremist currents of political Islam have sought to amend personal status laws to decrease the status of women. These laws had only recently been achieved after a struggle that lasted several decades. Egyptian women were also subject to desperate attempts to prevent them from having the right to a public life, to express their opinions freely, and to participate in demonstrations against the Brotherhood regime. The epitome of the oppression suffered by women was sexual harassment and rape in public, which was carried out systematically by organized groups.
Q: Are you worried about terrorism in Egypt? Why do you think terrorism has risen in Egypt and around the world?
We all feel very worried about terrorism in Egypt, but I fully trust the abilities of the political leadership to eliminate the hotbeds of terrorism. It has already been doing so in the past few days, with operations in Kerdasa, Delga Village in Menia, and other locations. The council sent a message to the commander of the armed forces, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, calling on him to continue the efforts aimed at combating terrorism in Egypt and those terrorizing peaceful citizens everywhere, who conform to neither the beliefs of the monotheistic religions nor with international norms or conventions. It think that the reason for the emergence of terrorism is that there is a group of countries supporting terrorism that have become clear in the last few days, given the number of weapons, murder and Al-Qaeda flags in the hands of people who claim to be peaceful. These countries have been secretly plotting against Egypt in an attempt to divide the country into small states.
Q: In your opinion, do you think the media contributed to the instability in Egypt?
The media is a double-edged sword. It can be a tool for achieving stability and advancing national interests, but it can also be a tool of destruction through its broadcasting of sedition and unrest among the citizens of a country. It can be even more seriously damaging if its broadcasts are aimed at destabilizing a country to achieve the goal of a private entity—which is what happened with Al-Jazeera. The Qatari channel’s broadcasts significantly contributed to Egypt’s destabilization, so we decided to end its broadcasting license. We always ask other nations not to interfere with the internal affairs of Egypt.
Q: Regarding your visit to Geneva, what is your assessment of the world’s views on Egypt and the positions of some countries that see what happened recently as a coup?
I did not go to Geneva because of visa delays and a lack of time, but I want to emphasize that the revolution of June 30 was a purely Egyptian revolution, not a military coup as some are trying to call it. In regards to the way the world sees Egypt, the position of the West is that the revolution was very shameful. Western television stations were reporting in a manner completely detached from reality. I want to make it clear that the Egyptian revolution proved to everyone that the democracy advocated by the Western world is a fake democracy ruled by interests.
The council delivered a number of responses to this situation, wherein it sent messages to the Western media refuting their claim that what happened was a coup, arguing instead that the military had responded to the popular will. Therefore, it is incorrect to describe what happened in Egypt as a military coup in any way. We tried, through these messages, to highlight what has happened to women and all types of people who do not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. Their rule completely marginalized these groups of people and the June 30 revolution was the people’s attempt to rectify the situation.
Q: What do you think of the positions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states?
It is a great position that reflects and embodies the meaning of Arab unity. It also highlights the amount of love that Arab states have for Egypt and its people, while displaying their eagerness to restore Egypt’s role and status in the Arab region. Egypt has played, and will continue to play, a prominent role in all Arab issues. We appreciate the position of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and the positions of all of the Gulf States that have stood beside Egypt through its current crisis. We also appreciate their support for the revolution of June 30, the popular revolution carried out by the sons of Egypt’s free will in order to rid Egypt of its fascist rulers, who tried to control all aspects of life in the country. That government was sole cause of deteriorating relations between Egypt and other Arab nations.
Q: How is the council cooperating with other Arab states on women’s and family issues?
We welcome all forms of cooperation with national councils in Arab states. The council encourages solidarity with our sisters in the struggle. All of us in the Arab world have faced more or less the same obstacles and challenges in fighting for our rights, which have been forcibly taken from us over time. We here in Egypt welcome an opportunity to learn from the experiences of neighboring Arab states in the advancement of women. We consider them companions on this path, and we are all on the lookout for what women are achieving in Arab countries. There certainly will be cooperation soon between us and the women of all Arab countries, especially related to the challenges we are facing in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is one of the reasons we all need to unite to preserve the rights of women. The Arab Women’s Organization plays an important role in the arrangement of joint work between us. It also helps increase awareness of the problems that women in all Arab countries face, which are largely consistent but slightly different from country to country.
Q: What is your response to the fact that some consider members of your council remnants of the Mubarak regime?
I completely refuse to divide individuals into sections and categories and call them by different names. I now know what is meant by “remnants.” If that word is intended to represent all of those who were working under the previous regime, then the entirety of the Egyptian people are remnants. For my part, everyone was well aware of my position toward the former regime and my disagreement with its policies, which I have made clear more than once. I think that it is important to change individuals and members of the council and there will always be criticism of the council and its members. The problem is not with the members, but with the council itself, as there is a complete refusal for anyone to care about women.
Q: Did the January revolution undermine confidence in the national councils established by Mubarak? How can they win the sympathy and confidence of Egyptian society once more?
I can assure you that all of the national councils in Egypt, including the National Council for Women, for Motherhood and Childhood, and for Human Rights, were established in accordance with international agreements and conventions signed by Egypt. These are not a Mubarak invention. Regarding the National Council for Women, we must first clarify the concepts and principles behind the decision to establish the council in the first place. The constitution of 1956 provides for the adoption of the principle of absolute, unconditional equality and did not recognize the rights of Egyptian woman as a grant. Instead, it was the product of a century of determined struggle and of commitments made by Egypt as a party to the 1948–1949 international conventions on human rights.