Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My speech at US Capitol Hill on women rights

The text below is the draft of my speech at Congress on the 3rd of March 2010 on women rights in Egypt. The audience included more than 120 policy makers, representatives of NGOs, activists, and media staffers. I wish I could record the many interesting discussions that happened afterwards, but here are some links that might help you imagine how it was like:


Search the internet for more :)

Thank you Congress and Freedom House for hosting this event! Thanks for all organizations, activists, policymakers, and international guests present here. Your presence and interest today give me hope that the positive change we all aspire can happen very soon. Not only on women rights level but on social and political levels. I always believe that when you empower women you empower the whole society. When you change women, you change the future. I am much honored to introduce you a quick overview on women rights in my homeland, Egypt. The fact that the current year 2010 marks the 100 anniversary of the International Woman Day adds to my pleasure. Happy Woman’s Day to everyone!

We – Egyptians – are famous for our sense of humor. So, let me start with telling you a joke:

The general assembly of the state council of Egypt held an emergency meeting to vote on giving women access to the prestigious position of a “judge.” The results were as follows:

- 334 out of 380 members voted against
- Only 42 voted for woman’s right to work as a judge
- With 4 abstentions

Oh! You did not laugh! It is not a funny joke, right? Unfortunately, this is a reality that happened in Egypt about two weeks ago. Why do I consider it a silly joke? Simply, because the ones who voted against woman’s right to run for a judge position, are themselves judges. They run very influential courts all over Egypt. They control the destiny of hundreds of convicted citizens looking for equal access to justice. They are supposed to extend justice and equality to all citizens regardless of their faith, race, or gender. Moreover, those judges are elite intellectuals, not ordinary people who may be influenced by the extreme Islamists and the general sense of religious piety which is over-controlling the Egyptian society these days. They are judges! However, I think that they are not much better than the woman who forces her eight years old daughter to have FGM surgery! For those of you who are not familiar with the term, FGM is Female Genital Mutilation. It is a habit widespread in my country under false claims attributing practicing it to religious teachings or social morality.

FGM is not the only form of Egypt’s patriarchal society’s violence against women. Sexual Harassment is another taboo problem in Egypt. I am ashamed to state that Egyptian women experience physical and verbal harassment on daily basis either in public places, study or work places, or sometimes at house. The real problem behind sexual harassment is that it violates not only woman right to privacy and control over her body but also her right to movement and effective engagement in social and political activities. Many young women are denied their right to education and work to be protected against harassment. In 2004, sexual harassment was used by parliamentary candidates to keep women away from voting polls! According to several reports released then, some parliamentary candidates hired thugs to harass the women who came to vote for their rivals. So, those women had to leave the voting venue before they give their votes. In presidential elections of 2005, a number of female activists and journalists were severely harassed by thugs allegedly hired by security forces. Unfortunately, this scared many women away from political participation.

The urgent question now is: how could this dark image – which I am portraying here – fits with the progress Egypt is achieving in women rights reports published worldwide, including the Freedom House survey which we are discussing today. Egypt is ranked 5th in the Freedom House’s 2010 report! Very interesting paradox, don’t you agree?

As an insider young woman experiencing all those details on daily basis, let me give you the shocking answer: women rights in my country are only used for “Decoration.” Either decoration for the regime, political parties, political blocks, or sometimes religious groups!

In the past 10 years many laws have changed to the favor of women. We were given the right to travel without a male permission (i.e. of a father or a husband). Yet in real practice, very few of women can enjoy this right. I am a vivid example to this. I have to take the permission of four people in my family before each trip I should make for work purposes. Only three years ago, traveling was something I cannot even dream of! It is true I was able to break this barrier towards my ambitions. However, there are hundreds of talented young women out there who are deprived from this basic right to free movement.

The government has successfully issued a number of laws criminalizing FGM surgeries at hospitals and private clinics. But still, up till this very moment, FGM is practiced under the ground by inexperienced nurses and non-medical practitioners. Actually, issuing the law was not a step forward; it doubled the misery.

We have very strict laws against sexual harassment. But still women are harassed in the street, workplace, and I am very disappointed to say inside their houses. They lack access to real protection and holding the perpetrators accountable. The social norms prevent women from complaining about such abuses, because woman (the victim) is the only one who always gets blamed! Except, of course, in very rare cases.

And back to what we mentioned earlier, we still have the majority of judges at the state council denying woman right to occupy an influential legislative position, while we have tens of laws, regulations, constitutional stipulations, and ministerial decrees supporting women right to seek and occupy influential state positions!

The vast gap between governmental records and real changes cannot be narrowed and subsequently vanished away without:

- Adopting a modern narrative for women aiming at changing their mentalities and keeping them aware about their rights and how to access them

- Working with men on advancing women rights and removing all the stereotypes of the passive role of women

- Imposing international pressure on countries violating women rights in the Middle East and North Africa region, not only to issue decorative laws but also to establish enhancing mechanisms to make sure that these laws are applied.

Finally, I would like to conclude with a statement which I strongly believe in:
Man and woman are two wings of the same bird, which is society. They should empower and support each other for the bird to fly high! Empower women, then you empower the whole society.