by Fernande van Tets and Aline Sara
On Monday night it was announced that Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq would progress to the run off next month of the Egyptian presidential elections. Both are conservative candidates; Shafiq was prime minister under the former regime of Mubarak and Morsi was the candidate for the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm.
Although comprising 52 percent of the Egyptian population, some 40 million plus, the women’s vote was ignored. The Egyptian presidential candidates’ programmes minimally addressed women voters, leaving a wealth of support untapped. Only in the last few days did some candidates make an effort to woo these women voters, but there was no candidate women could unite behind.
Unsurprisingly, supporters of all candidates agreed that bread and butter issues carry the day. Many voters explained their choice for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated candidate, in economic rather than religious terms. Thirty-five-year-old Fatah al Said Ramadan, a fast -talking woman dressed head to toe in a black niqab in Agouza and a Morsi supporter, said her concern was by and far with regards to the economy. “I vote for Morsi, for his economic and political plan, his program will focus on helping the country move forward,” she told us.
According to government statistics, Egypt has an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, up from 8.9 percent last year. Asked about women’s rights, Hanin Zakariah, a 42-year-old mother of two and Morsi supporter who was monitoring the polls in downtown Abdeen alluded to Morsi’s economic platform, which aims to get women into the workforce and pay them wages equal to men.
At Tahrir square, the most heard cry was for dignity. This dignity, it seems, is less about gender equality than economic dignity and social justice. Noor from the Khaled Ali campaign, the socialist and most human rights friendly candidate, stressed that the first stage is achieving social justice for everyone and focusing on women should be relegated to the second stage. “Women’s rights are mainstreamed through social justice,” she said.
Her colleague, human rights defender Sally Samir, passionately spoke of women’s current participation in the political process, stating Khaled Ali’s office was comprised of 60 percent women. She felt, however, that women’s equality was far off. “Obviously, women are not seen as the other half of the society, the partners of men… Of course there is a lot of concern that women are not at the forefront yet.”
Less than 25 percent of the women interviewed even considered women’s issues when choosing their candidate. In fact, many of them seemed to consider women’s rights a non-issue, and several women responded with surprise when asked whether they felt a lack of equality between women and men’s rights.
Fatima Reda, 20, a pretty veiled girl who is studying to be a secretary and voted for Morsi, denied that there was a difference between women and men’s rights. Ola Hassin, a 28-year-old dressed in a pink headscarf with a matching pink bag and also a Morsi supporter, exalted the role of women in the political process, saying that all her girlfriends, indeed all women are participating in the political process.
Among those interviewed, only one woman said that she was worried a Freedom and Justice Party win could backfire on women’s rights. Seventy-seven-year-old Sahir Bahnasewi, herself Muslim, said she feared women’s freedom would be compromised under an Islamic president, citing the rise of veiled women in public as a concern.
Nazla Abdel Amin Ibrahim, 56, and her daughter Farah Farouk voted for Hamdeen Sabahi for that reason, stating that religion is a personal affair and separate from politics and the state. “I am a good Muslim and I adhere to the Sharia. I don’t want the state to tell me to do this,” said Ibrahim.
Throughout the days we found women of all backgrounds voting for Mohamed Morsi, with several women stating they supported his programme a 100 percent. The win for Morsi was unanticipated by the polls. Indeed, it is women who may have played a crucial role in determining the outcome. Morsi was a surprise last-minute surge and women were the largest group of undecided voters. One of the reasons he may have been overlooked is that polling focused on men and Morsi had a strong showing among female voters suspects Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Institute.
The Muslim Brotherhood has policies geared towards women; however these are usually conservative in nature. One of its female MPs practices a very distinct style of feminism and has called for a reverse on the law which allows Muslim women to divorce. In Abdeen, a woman agreed with the female MP and disapproved of such ‘Suzanne Mubarak laws’ (laws promoting female rights were introduced under the former first Lady’s tutelage.) Yet such views have not deterred female voters.
Activist Sarah Mounir, a 23-year-old Coptic Christian, said she felt reassured by an active small cluster of women campaigning hard for women’s rights. This vocal minority, which she dubbed the ‘Facebook and Twitter people,’ widely represent women’s rights in a network of NGOs and activists and she felt sure they would not let women’s rights suffer. She had voted for Hamdeen Sabahi, the former Nasserist who did well in the capital, and cited his liberal attitude towards women (his daughter does not wear a headscarf and has a job) as a contributing factor. Asked about whether she feared continuing Muslim Brotherhood influence, she said: “I’m not scared, but I don’t like it.”
Morsi moved quickly to address Western fears that he would curtail women’s rights if he won the presidency. “Women have a right to freely choose the attire that suits them,” he told reporters.
In total, 25 percent of the Egyptian voters cast their ballot for Morsi. Morsi and Aboul Fotouh, the more progressive Islamic candidate, together scooped up roughly 45 percent of the vote, significantly less than the 65 percent of parliamentary votes they won in December 2011. The participation rate is estimated to have dropped more than 10 percentage points since December. This is partially due to boycotting by revolutionaries who feel the presidential elections lack legitimacy.
However, an overwhelming sense of optimism drenched the two days of election fever in Cairo. Asked about their personal aspirations, many women spoke of their future as part of a brighter future for Egypt.
It is ironic that the candidate who seems to have benefited most from the female vote is the man the West associates with curtailed freedom for women. But so far for Egyptian women, the economy takes primacy. Women are trying to secure a better future for their children, a women’s issue of all times. And while gender equality is on some women’s agenda, for now, there are bigger fish to fry.
• A woman casts her vote in the school which was a polling district on the island of Gezirat al-Waraq. There was a jolly atmosphere at the station, until we got into a spat with the Army concerning our interviewing people. Video courtesy of the authors. •
About the authors:
Fernande van Tets is a Dutch freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. She is currently a correspondent for de Groene Amsterdammer (NL) as well as writing for various local and international (online) publications. She writes mostly about political changes in the Middle East, the role of the media and entrepreneurship. She has a strong interest in security; Fernande recently graduated with distinction from King's College, London with an MA in War Studies. She previously completed both a BA in Political Science and in Arabic at the University of Amsterdam. You can follow her on twitter @fernandevtets.
Aline Sara is Lebanese-American, born and raised in New York, where she attended the French Lycée. She is passionate about justice and intercultural exchange, with a natural penchant for the Middle East, where she likes to focus on relations between the West and Arab worlds as well as human, and more especially women’s rights. Aline completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. She majored in Psychology and minored in Moral and Political philosophy. She also studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. Since graduating, she has worked in conflict resolution, human rights as well as in arts and culture, fields that have been reflected in her journalism over the course of her last three years as Beirut Based journalist.