The embattled new National Council for Women

Since the beginning of this year, the National Council for Women has continually been brought into question by political forces seeking to denounce its legitimacy as a viable organization, generally due to its ties with the now-dissolved National Democratic Party and its association with a bundle of laws deemed un-Islamic by the emerging Islamist authorities.

The council — established under presidential decree in 2000 by Hosni Mubarak and consequently spearheaded by his wife Suzanne — was initially formed with the aim of raising the profile of and empowering Egyptian women.

However, just after 2012 kicked off, a lawsuit was filed demanding that it be dissolved and reformed as an elected body that “truly represents Egyptian women and seeks to empower them.”

In response, a decree for reforming the council was issued by Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, which resulted in the appointment of 30 new members by the ruling military council. Former Social Affairs Minister Mervat al-Talawy replaced the council’s head, Farkhonda Hassan, who is known for her strong ties to the ex-first lady.

Women’s rights activists and parliamentary figures, among others, have responded to the reform and appointment process negatively for various reasons.

Both believe the military’s appointment process to be wholly illegitimate, particularly as many of the newly appointed figures are said to also be associates of the old regime. Some activists also contend that the council continues to serve only as a means to portray its members in a positive light — as advocates of women’s rights — which was often believed to be the case during the Mubarak era.

Indeed, shortly after the appointment process, novelist Radwa Ashour, who was listed as one of the 30 new members, was quoted in the media as saying that no one had addressed her personally and that she refuses to be part of the council.

Dorreya Sharaf, council spokesperson, told Egypt Independent that “with regards to the legitimacy of its members, this is not a time to be worrying about whether or not the council has ‘feloul’ [remnants of old regime] members or not — defending women’s rights is in the interest of all involved.”

In a recent interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, Talawy pointed out that the council had a major role in empowering women in rural areas, particularly through issuing identity cards for them, which was a major step in improving their condition. This work, she said, was perhaps obscured by the luxurious receptions organized in the presence of the first lady.

But Islamist parliamentary figures are outwardly against the council in its entirety, for another reason. They suggest that the women’s rights legislation the council advocates contradicts Sharia, and that such laws only serve to break up Egyptian families — a sentiment reiterated by Freedom and Justice Party MP Azza al-Garf during a Human Rights Committee meeting on Tuesday.

Referred to are the laws regarding khul divorce (the right of a Muslim woman to divorce her husband if she pays back her marriage settlement) and child custody (which limits the amount of time a divorced father is allowed to see his children).

It is commonly alleged by parliamentary figures, as in Garf’s comments on Tuesday, that the National Council for Women is the sole body responsible for such legislation, also dubbed “Suzanne’s laws.”

This stance is not helped by the fact that the council often assumed full credit for these laws as they were passed, according to women’s rights activists, even though the laws were originally championed by numerous women’s rights organizations.

Other laws attributed to the council are the ban on female circumcision and the criminalization of sexual assault and aggression against women.

Talawy, the council’s new chairperson, has been grappling with the criticism.

She recently stated in a press release that the khul law was actually passed a month before the council’s formation back in 2000, and hence has nothing to do with the council.

She added that both the khul law and the custody law were passed by the People’s Assembly, not the council itself.

“The main idea in these [critics’] minds is that women should not be thought of. We can talk about the family but not women. It could be a matter of dogma or not believing in equality, although our religion has called for equality,” Talawy told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Sharaf too pointed out that these laws were not the work of a single organization, but that many organizations, activists and political bodies have all played significant roles in passing women’s rights laws over the years.

She also said that parliamentary figures and Islamists are interpreting Sharia incorrectly — a claim backed by women’s rights activists — and that the Quran repeatedly states that women must be protected.

But as laws defending the rights of women are now under threat — and considering that Parliament has only 2 percent female representation and many fear women will also be ill-represented in the assembly that will draft the upcoming constitution — women’s rights activists are finding themselves in a position of uncertainty regarding the council’s legitimacy and ability to effectively respond to the issues at hand.

For one, many suggest that without the political backing of the former first lady, the council’s ability to lobby for women’s rights may be significantly weakened.

Nonetheless, in attempt to take a proactive role, Talawy said during the council’s second meeting on Saturday that a committee will be formed this week under the supervision of council vice president and lawyer Nour Farahat to prepare constitutional articles defending women’s rights for submission to the constituent assembly. The committee will hold its first meeting on Monday.

She also said the council is demanding that the constituent assembly be at least 50 percent female, given that women represent half of society.

When asked by Egypt Independent if the National Council for Women encourages the mobilization of popular support, Sharaf said the council cannot organize such rallies, but that she believes ongoing protests and pressure from other organizations have vital roles to play during this crucial period.

“These laws cannot be denounced without the backing of both the Parliament and the general public,” she said. “Resistance must come from all angles.”

Regarding, the council’s ability to act as an effective organization, Marwa Sharafeddin, a women’s rights activist and PhD law student at Oxford, said that although the military appointment of the council’s members was a shame, many members are legitimate women’s rights activists and lobbyists.

“Whether or not they will be effective in their role, nobody knows,” she said. “We will have to wait and see.”

“Opposing and recommending against changes to these laws is one thing,” said Nagla Nassar, a lawyer who specializes in defending women’s rights. “Ensuring that this opposition is followed through to the end and actually implemented is another.”

Nasser added that the council will have to take up its role aggressively and not think of itself as a merely “cosmetic” authority.

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