USA: Woman Up

Friday, July 13, 2012
Foreign Policy
North America
United States of America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Hillary Clinton is doing something this weekend that no U.S. secretary of state has ever done: meeting with a democratically elected president of Egypt. The free and fair election that brought Mohamed Morsi to office was a milestone in Egypt's transition to democracy, and Clinton's meeting is an important symbolic gesture to acknowledge his legitimacy as Egypt's new leader.

But the meeting should be about more than just symbolism. While Morsi has pledged to respect the rights of all Egyptians and name a woman to be one of his vice presidents, there is good reason to question his commitment to equality and pluralism. As a senior Muslim Brotherhood official (he recently resigned to assume the presidency), he represented the group's older, more conservative wing, helping draft a 2007 platform that called for a council of Islamic scholars to vet legislation for its compatibility with Islamic law and held that a woman could not be president of Egypt. More recently, during the presidential campaign, he used the slogan, "The Quran is our constitution."

Clinton is in a unique position to press the president to demonstrate his support for the rights of all Egyptians -- including women -- given her longtime leadership on behalf of the rights of women and girls. From her seminal speech at the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, where she famously declared that "women's rights are human rights," to her recent efforts to promote women's participation in peace and security efforts, she has been a persistent and eloquent champion of women's rights at home and abroad. Clinton can cement this legacy when she meets with Morsi by standing up for Egyptian women.

While the Muslim Brotherhood's policies are clearly discriminatory toward women, the problems facing Egyptian women long predate the organization's rise to power. Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, women were grossly underrepresented in parliament and senior government positions, and security officials subjected female detainees to sexual assaults in the form of "virginity tests," which have continued under the military regime that replaced him. A court ruling banned the practice in December 2011, but in an important test case in March, a military court acquitted an army doctor accused of performing "virginity tests" on women apprehended during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square.

Women, meanwhile, were at the forefront of the Egyptian uprising. According to a recent Gallup poll, 30 percent of participants in the revolution were women, and more women (82 percent) than men (75 percent) supported its aims. But progress for women, like progress overall, has been elusive during this period of transition and military rule.

The Cairo-based Nazra for Feminist Studies, for instance, has documented many recent incidents of violence against women, and posted testimonies from women who were sexually assaulted in and around Tahir Square. The attacks, says Nazra, are "calculated and organized so as to scare women away from the public sphere, to punish women for their participation, and to keep them at home."

In the recently disbanded parliament -- which Morsi attempted to reconvene, triggering a showdown with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces -- only eight of the 508 members were women. Put another way, women made up less than two percent of parliament in a country whose population is almost 50 percent female. During its brief existence, the male and Islamist-dominated body took up proposals to decrease the marriage age for girls from 16 to 14 and revoke a woman's right to divorce her husband.

The Egyptian law granting women the right to file for divorce, enacted in 2000, was championed by former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, who was seen with some justification as a women's rights advocate. Yet she hurt the cause as much as she helped it as her campaigns were associated with a despised regime, one that denied fundamental rights to Egyptians, including women. Egypt's women need new champions in government who possess real power.

My organization, Human Rights First, asked Mozn Hassan, Nazra's founder and executive director, what issues Clinton ought to raise with Morsi. "Representation for women in [the] next parliament is important," she told us, "in addition to fair representation for women in the new cabinet." She urged the secretary of state to press Morsi to make good on his promise to select a woman as one of his vice presidents and to appoint women to other important positions.

Hassan also encouraged Clinton to mention violence against women and secure Morsi's commitment to take concrete steps -- such as a pledge to fight for investigations into charges of sexual assault and prosecutions of those responsible -- to combat this growing problem. She should also urge Morsi to support the codification of women's equality in the new constitution, which is being drafted, by embracing language that tracks with the international human rights treaties that Egypt has already signed.

Some have claimed that only secular, wealthy Egyptian women -- not the religious, working-class majority -- support women's equality. But Egyptian feminist Dina Wahba has argued that this oft-cited dichotomy is false. A recent Gallup poll supports her view, revealing that religious Egyptian women are no less likely than their secular counterparts to support equality. Overall, 86 percent of Egyptian women believe they should have the same legal rights as men. Eighty-nine percent say girls should have equal access to education, 89 percent believe women should be able to work outside the home, and 86 percent say women should be able to initiate divorce.

By championing women's rights, then, Clinton will be taking a position that is broadly popular with Egyptian women, even as many women -- and men -- remain leery of American involvement in their country's affairs. They're well aware that the United States supported and armed the Mubarak regime for three decades and continues to send aid to the Egyptian military despite its resistance to democratic reform.

Many Egyptians are skeptical not just of American motives, but also of Clinton herself. In 2009, when many future revolutionaries were fighting for democratic reforms, she made a point of publicly embracing Mubarak and his wife as family friends. And when the revolution erupted in 2011, her initial assessment that "the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people" angered democracy activists.

Clinton could overcome skepticism in Egypt by living up to her well-earned reputation as a champion of women's rights and by fulfilling her inspiring vision of "putting people at the center" of U.S. foreign policy. As she said in April, in reference to activists fighting for freedom around the world, "America needs to be on their side."