Female contenders for parliament demand greater representation

Female candidates in Egypt’s upcoming legislative elections should be given as much say in their country’s political affairs – and as much coverage in the media – as their male counterparts, women parliamentary hopefuls said on Monday.

Speaking at a conference held by the Arab Alliance for Women (AAW), a local NGO, women candidates from a range of backgrounds stressed the need for more female representation in national politics and for a greater recognition of the role of women in society as a whole.

“Despite clear differences in their ideologies, all the candidates are united in their struggle to voice women’s concerns,” Heber Radwan, AAW chairwoman, said at the conference. “This election is the first step towards the true integration of women into Egyptian politics.”

Political life has traditionally been dominated by men in this conservative, majority-Muslim country. Currently, women have a representation of just 1.6 percent in a parliament dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

On 9 November, Egyptians will begin voting in the first round of parliamentary elections, with 40 women vying for seats in the country’s 440-strong national assembly. Balloting countrywide will be carried out in three phases spread over a six-week period.

At Monday’s conference, some 30 female parliamentary hopefuls criticised the state’s apparent lack of consideration for their candidacies.

“I stood by the NDP’s presidential campaign [in August] to the end of the election,” said Marwa Nabil Abdel-hamid Shaair, a member of the ruling party. “I would have appreciated some show of support from the NDP in return.”

Others accused the authorities of harassing them in an attempt to exclude them altogether from participation in the elections.

One parliamentary contender from the northern city of Alexandria, Samia Taher, told reporters: “Thugs destroyed my office and my campaign with the goal of pushing me out of the races.”

Most women candidates originate from rural areas. Aside from seeking a greater role for women in politics, they also express concern about the numerous social problems affecting low-income areas of the Egyptian countryside.

Independent candidate Karima Abderrahman El-Masri, from Sohag, said: “We need to work hard to make sure water, especially in poor areas, is clean and drinkable. Even animals won’t touch the water we drink in the rural areas.”

NDP’s Shaair, for her part, speaks of seeking “to increase employment opportunities” for Egypt’s millions of unemployed young people.

Another candidate, Surya Suhur Abdu Hassan, who wears a full Islamic face veil, or niqab, told IRIN that critics of women’s participation in politics who based their argument on Islam, or on Arab culture, had it all wrong.

“There are plenty examples in Islamic and Arab history of women that fought to improve their societies without compromising their ideology,” she said.

Despite complaints that vary from official disinterest to downright harassment, most female parliamentary candidates aren’t allowing themselves to be cowed.

“I am a mother, a sister and a wife,” said candidate Heba Wafa Zein, from the rural province of Shariyya. “If I stay home, then the whole of society might as well stop functioning too.”