Egypt elections: The challenge of appealing to women

Women walk under campaign election posters for Mohammed Mursi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood"s political party in Cairo, April 2011 The candidates are suddenly working harder to win women's votes

Egypt's presidential candidates have discovered an important, but strangely neglected, constituency in the election, which begins on Wednesday.

They have been making a last-minute push for the women's vote. Pollsters believe women make up one of the highest proportions of undecided voters, in a country where the most recent polls suggest more than a third of voters have yet to make up their minds.

Women played a prominent role in the demonstrations that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. So far, they have not reaped much of a reward.

In the first parliamentary elections under the new order, only nine women were elected as MPs, with two more added later as appointed members. Women's activists fear the Islamist-, and male-, dominated parliament could roll back on women's rights.

In some notorious episodes since the revolution, some women protesters complained of being subjected to virginity tests while in military custody. And the world was outraged at pictures of a woman protester being beaten up by the security forces in demonstrations last December.

A woman being beaten by security forces in Tahrir Square, Cairo, December 2011. Thousands of women joined rallies after seeing footage of a woman being beaten in Tahrir Square

"I believe at an individual level, women have become very strong after the revolution," said Nehad Abu ElKomsan, of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights.

"They faced a very severe situation... even women who were not involved in any uprising movement, they have been in their homes responsible for everything in very difficult circumstances, and this makes them gain courage and self-confidence so they become stronger.

"But at the level of politician or policy-maker, they still deal with women in [the same] stereotypical way as they were dealing [with them] before the revolution."

'New brand of Islamism'

In the last week of campaigning, the moderate Islamist candidate Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh held a special rally for women, as he attempted to woo the women's vote. Hundreds of women packed the audience, while on the stage, during a series of speeches and round tables by women, the only man to appear was the candidate himself.

Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh is also unique in having a political adviser who is a woman. Rabab al-Mahdi is a liberal, a politics professor, who does not wear a headscarf.

"Egyptian women should support him, because he has proved by deed, not by word, his position on women's gender equality, religious equality and social equality," she told the BBC.

Election candidates

Seen as front-runners:

  • Ahmed Shafiq: Former commander of the air force and briefly PM during February 2011 protests.
  • Amr Moussa: Former foreign minister and ex-head of Arab League.
  • Mohammed Mursi: Heads Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
  • Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh: Leading Brotherhood figure forced to leave after announcing candidacy last year.

Other candidates include Islamic thinker Muhammad al-Awwa; leading judge Hisham al-Bastawisi; Socialist MP Abu al-Izz al-Hariri; left-wing rights activist Khalid Ali; co-founder of Nasserist Karama party Hamdin Sabbahi

She argues her candidate represents a new brand of Islamism that liberal-minded women should not be afraid of. The polls suggest that argument has won over more support from women.

Another candidate who has been working hard to win the women's vote is Ahmed Shafiq. He has pledged to appoint a woman vice-president if elected. He is known as something of a charmer, and he has also won sympathy following the death of his wife early in the election campaign.

However, the fact that he was prime minister under Hosni Mubarak and is a retired general puts off some voters, who believe Ahmed Shafiq is the favoured candidate of the military, and of the old regime.

So the dilemma facing women is similar to that facing many of the activists who led the revolution. There is no obvious candidate for them to support, if they are opposed both to the old regime and to the rise of Islamism.

A woman president?

As with so many other issues, Egyptian society is moving faster than its politics. Women are beginning to assert their independence, though only hesitantly at first.

In a country market, I asked some women selling live pigeons and ducklings if they would obey their husbands, if they were told who to vote for.

"Yes of course, if my husband sees he is good, I will vote for him," said one woman. "But if the candidate is not good and I see he is not good, I will not obey my husband," she added defiantly.

Women hold up posters for the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Mohammed Mursi in Cairo in May 2012 Female supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate formed a human chain in Cairo last week

As to whether Egypt was ready for a woman president, the women in the market agreed that was definitely a job for a man.

Yet other women have begun realising that getting women into power is the best way to change their own lives.

"What we have to work on is the attitude of politicians," says women's rights activist Nehad Abu ElKomsan.

"They consume women, but don't deal with women as citizens. I don't believe there is a big problem at the level of society... The problem is that politicians deal with women as numbers, as the stairs which they need to put their feet on, until they get their position."

"The argument that we have a conservative society, we have been listening to since 1956... I believe they benefit from the ignorance of women, and illiteracy, and the weakness of women."

A significantly higher rate of illiteracy of Egyptian women, compared with men, is just one indicator of the many changes they face.

But the arrival of democracy also gives them an opportunity to assert their power, a power they may just be beginning to realise.

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