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Egyptian Women Worry Constitution Limits Rights


An assembly dominated by Islamists is drafting a new constitution for Egypt. And controversy has broken out over a section on women's rights. The draft article guarantees equality between men and women, but only if it does not contradict the rules of Islamic law. Merrit Kennedy in Cairo reports that some women are asking what this mean, especially under a government-led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: A woman yells: down with the Brotherhood outside the assembly where Egypt's new constitution is being written. She and several hundred other women are protesting against a draft article on women's rights. They worry that the article as it stands now opens the door to conservative interpretations of Sharia, or Islamic law, on issues like marriage age and female circumcision. The practice is banned under current Egyptian law but remains widespread here and some ultraconservative Islamists argue it is sanctioned by Sharia.

Mervat al-Nahas, a housewife, joined the protest with her two daughters.

MERVAT AL-NAHAS: We don't have rights, enough rights, let's put it that way. And so if this goes through it's even worse. It puts us even in a worse position. And that's not acceptable. I mean, we're trying to move forward, not to go back.

KENNEDY: Human Rights Watch says the draft article is inconsistent with gender equality. But Dina Zakaria, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, says that gender equality would be impossible without a mention of Sharia.

DINA ZAKARIA: Sharia really guarantees my freedom that's mentioned here. So if I'm going to take it out of the article, which means that my rights, it's not guaranteed for me.

KENNEDY: Amr Shalakany, a law professor at Cairo University, points out that the article on women in Egypt's previous constitution has the same wording about Islamic law. But he says the new article actually provides more protection for women, because it specifically obligates the state to provide free maternal and child health services, and ensures women's social, economic and inheritance rights.

AMR SHALAKANY: The state is obligated to provide a set of services. And if it doesn't, then the state can be brought to court. So in that sense this is actually progress from the 1971 constitution.

KENNEDY: Shalakany says there is a range of interpretations of Islamic law - some very conservative and some progressive. The big question for him is whether clerics or judges decide on the interpretation. The Supreme Constitutional Court has historically been progressive in its read of Sharia, but there has been discussion by those drafting the Constitution of moving the power to decide from the court to a body of unelected Islamic scholars.

SHALAKANY: It's horrible. It turns us into a theocratic state.

KENNEDY: In the most recent draft of the Constitution, though, that concern has been eliminated. At this point, the power remains with the Supreme Constitutional Court. Another issue of concern for activists is that there are only eight women in the 100-member Constitutional Assembly. Manar El-Shorbagy, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, is one of them.

MANAR EL-SHORBAGY: I think that there are more important issues when it comes to women than this article.

KENNEDY: She's trying to introduce other articles that would protect women against sexual harassment and violence, both on the rise since last year's uprising here. But she says that on women's issues, she feels isolated by both Islamists and Liberals in the assembly.

EL-SHORBAGY: To tell you the truth, it's men. It's the male way of looking at things. Of course, I knew that, I've been living in this society all my life, but now you see it in a very serious issue when it comes to the constitution.

KENNEDY: For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.