Middle East Features
Egyptian women rely on quota system to get into parliament (Feature)
By Nehal El-Sherif Nov 27, 2010, 7:26 GMT
Cairo - Hanan Saad never imagined she would be close to winning a seat in Egypt's lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly.
The 36-year-old engineer from the Mediterranean town of Damietta, 200 kilometres north of Cairo, is a member of to the opposition al- Wafd party.
'It was hard for us to compete with men before, as most districts were considered men-only playgrounds,' said Saad, who still faces a tough fight to win a place in the lower house of parliament.
Though still a newcomer to the national scene, Saad has built herself up politically in regional councils. Campaigning ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election took its toll - Saad could barely speak after losing her voice on the campaign trail.
She is among more than 390 women competing for one of the 64 seats in the lower house that have been allocated to female candidates under a new quota system.
Under the quota system women compete amongst themselves for the seats, as voters elect them separately from the rest of the candidates.
Egypt's women were granted full political rights in 1957, with the first two female legislators sworn in, but few have followed in their footsteps.
In the 2005 election, only four of the 444 seats in parliament went to women. The president, who can appoint 10 members of the People's Assembly, selected four additional women to the outgoing house.
Some of the female candidates competing for the seats question the validity of the system.
'I am running because it is the legal path to take part in public and social activities,' said Azza al-Garf, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate.
'But I believe the quota aims at forcing women into parliament, rather than actually empowering them,' she added.
In 1979, under then-president Anwar Sadat, a quota was introduced that reserved 33 seats for women in parliament. When it was abolished in 1990 under President Hosny Mubarak, the number of women in parliament steadily dwindled.
Al-Garf, a 46-year-old veiled woman candidate, is skeptical of Mubarak and his move to bring the quotas back.
'Right now, the system is available, legal and convenient for me,' she says.
But the system is still less convenient than she would prefer. As she is a member of the outlawed Brotherhood, she is campaigning without having received confirmed government that her name will be on the ballot on Sunday.
The Ministry of Interior rejected her name as an independent candidate, so she appealed to the High Elections Commission, which told her to start campaigning until a ruling was given.
The Muslim Brotherhood won nearly a fifth of the total in the People's Assembly in 2005, making it the largest opposition bloc in parliament.
But the grouping, which is fielding 13 female candidates this time, calls the quotas a 'ploy' to gain more parliamentary seats for the ruling National Democratic Party, which controls two-thirds of the lower house.
Hoda Badran, head of the non-governmental organisation the Alliance for Arab Women, looks at the matter from a different perspective.
'If half of the 64 women turn out to be good parliamentarians, then this is a step forward,' she told the German Press Agency dpa.
Her Alliance helped women register to vote and trained a group of campaign managers who are working with around 20 female candidates from different parties.
Similarly, the National Council for Women, headed by first lady Suzanne Mubarak, organised workshops for female candidates and trained them on how to make use of the internet in campaigning.
Badran admits that female politicians have a tough job ahead, and will have to prove themselves in a male-dominated landscape.
'They have to convince people, especially men, because they are not only going to be defending women's rights inside parliament,' said Badran.
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