Dr. Fatma Khafagy: Egyptian Women Persevere Despite Worst Constitution Ever

“The constitution on the whole is one of the worst constitutions that Egypt has ever had,” said Dr. Fatma Khafagy, the ombudsperson of gender equality in Egypt, in this interview with the Global Observatory. “Nobody is happy with the constitution except the regime, because it actually does not address many rights, and does not have enough protection for vulnerable groups. It does not talk about violence; it does not talk about children’s rights, women’s rights and gender equality, and so on.” 

Dr. Khafagy said the international community should be careful in differentiating between “what is a real democracy and what is a false democracy.” She argued that there isn’t true democracy in Egypt because the elections that took place were used to exploit people in the name of religion.

Dr. Khafagy said that women have remained very active politically since the revolution, though they are still not fully integrated into the political sphere, and that the increase of physical and sexual harassment of women, including while they are voting, is a form of intimidation.

“There is a fear, I think from women, of being excluded from everywhere; it’s something that has been systematic for some time now,” she said. “And, I think to scare them from public space is one other political instrument being used to try to frighten them and make them stay at home, which is not helping at all.”

Dr. Khafagy said she does see gender equality being supported by an increasing number of women (and men) who were not feminists or concerned with women’s rights before, and she insists there is no going back. “Egyptian women have participated fully in the revolution, and they want to participate in the democracy one day, and they’re not going back home. This insistence is giving hope that things are going to change.”

The interview was conducted by Amal Al-Ashtal, Research Assistant at the International Peace Institute. 

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Amal Al-Ashtal: Dr. Fatma Khafagy is the ombudsperson of gender equality in Egypt, an office she established in 2002 and headed until end of 2006, when she resigned. Prior to this, Fatma worked for over 15 years as head of the gender program at UNICEF Egypt and briefly headed the regional offices in UNIFEM in Amman, Jordan, in 1997. She has also been the Director General of the Community Development Program at the Social Fund. 

Dr. Fatma also worked as a Senior Gender Consultant to UNDP, UN Women, the European Commission, the Netherlands government, Aga Khan Foundation, among many other donor agencies. She holds a PhD in development planning from University of London, and has authored several chapters, articles and reports on women’s rights. Thank you, Dr. Fatma, for joining us at IPI for this interview. 

I want to start by congratulating you on your new, rather renewed role, as the ombudsperson for gender in Egypt. Kindly tell us more about the mission of this office which we understand is an integral entity of the National Council of Women. And has the function and mandate of the National Council change since the national revolution?

Fatma Khafagy: Thank you it’s great to be at IPI, with whom I was corresponding for long time, but, never been here, so it’s good to be in the premises of IPI. 

Actually, I took over a few months ago, the office of the ombudsman on gender equality. The central office is in Cairo, but we also have branches in all governments of Egypt. And it’s mainly to receive complainants who are suffering from any incident of gender inequality. We have lawyers who take the complaints from women; either they come to the offices, or they send us their complaints, or we have hotlines also, where they can put their complaints. And we start to investigate the complaints, and also asking for a supporting document that prove that there has been a discrimination against women. 

From there, we also have contacts with all ministries in Egypt, who have equal opportunity unit, headed by someone who is at a senior level, and with whom we negotiate until we solve the problem, or if it cannot be solved because there is a problem in the law or bylaws, then we go back to the law and bylaws, and see what is creating this problem, what are the loopholes in the legislation, and we start actually preparing legal and social documents and studies asking for the amendment of the laws, or sort of get things more enforcement measures for the law. And we start to advocate from then with the National Council for Women, and the media, and other ministries.

AA: Has the function and the mandate of the council changed since the revolution?

FK: The mandate and the function did not change. But before the revolution, the National Council of Women was headed by the wife of the ex-president. Then it had more of a political cloud. So, I would say the different ministries maybe have put much more effort into trying to solve complaints then. 

Now, after the revolution, the kind of complaints also have changed a little bit, especially in the public space –for instance, the physical and sexual harassment that happened to women political activists, who are in the protests and demonstrations, and so on. We have more of complains of that sort, which we did not have actually before the revolution. Also, because we follow up on elections, because there are many women now who actually vote in the elections, so also we receive complaints about the harassment that happened to women when they are voting. So this is also something new. These two things are sort of an additional kind of violence against women and discrimination that happen in the public sphere.

AA: And speaking of violence against women, we are indeed witnessing an alarming increase in violence and sexual harassment against women, both in the private and the public spheres. What accounts for this phenomenon, and do you agree to the claim that sexual harassment is a political tool to intimidate women?

FK: Yes, because women of Egypt have been very active since the revolution, and politically, they are very active also. On the official level, they’ve been sort of excluded, they sort of abolish the gender quota; there aren’t any women in the political forums now, and so on. But, women of all ages are very active in the political parties, in the protest, in the movement, in youth movements and so on. And, they’ve actually sort of voiced their protest and their wish that the revolution fulfills its objective for which it actually started. And there is a fear, I think from women, of being excluded from everywhere; it’s something that has been systematic for some time now. And, I think to scare them from public space is one other political instrument being used to try to frighten them and make them stay at home, which is not helping at all. On the contrary, women more and more insist of being in the public space and protesting, and so on. So I think, yeah, in many cases, especially the systematic gang harassment that happen, is a very obvious sign of political weapon to frighten women.

AA: And has the Egyptian government done enough to ensure the protection of women and the punishment of perpetrators? And also, what about youth group and individual activists endeavoring to combat sexual violence against women, such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment. How do you view their work?

FK: I don’t think the government is doing enough, actually, to put an end to that, for so many reasons. I can understand they can’t really change in such a short period, because there hasn’t been any reform in the police forces, so they are not really sort of being trained on how to deal with cases of violence; they don’t know how to write good police report, they’re also very much dominated by the culture. So, they think that if a woman goes to the police, which happens more often now than before, and tries to complain and insist on that the police writes a police record, so that proper investigation can happen afterwards, then the policeman would say, “Your family, if they know they would not be happy, why don’t you ‘hush’ about it,” trying to show as if it’s shameful actually, if she complains. 

So this is another problem, and the most important thing is that a police record should be really written well, because it will go to the district attorney and the investigation starts. So without this record, then there is no investigation that can happen. And, I don’t see any serious training of the policeman at this point. 

Secondly, there are loopholes in the law. We have a penal code that penalizes acts of violence and sexual harassment, but there are so many loopholes in the law itself, so it’s not also helping. On the contrary, the youth groups and movements involved in addressing violence against women and protecting, actually, young women when they are in the protests, are doing a fantastic job. They are there side-by-side with them, they try to protect them when the attacks happen to them, they do psychological, also rehabilitation for them, they have lawyers who can defend them, and they are doing as much as they can with their limited resources. 

But, I think they’re actually also evolving and learning how to be more effective in protecting young women. They’re also looking for people who are with them in the government or the National Council of Women to help enforcing a better law. And also to change some of the things, like putting cameras in the underground stations, because usually harassment happens in the metro stations; of also having the government and the university hospitals be responsible for the health services provided to victims of violence. Because until now, they don’t take care of them from the health point of view, there’s many pressures now, that this act should be stopped or should be addressed more seriously. 

AA: Do you believe advocating for equal citizenship for men and women can better advance women’s right at this critical juncture in Egypt?

FK: Yes, I believe so, and many people are joining the women’s movement, and many men as well, which is a good sign. And the whole issue of equal citizenship is being brought everywhere and advocated, and sort of a very strong demand on the regime. Men have really seen how women are being so much active on what they’re doing also, during and after the revolution, has showed that these are real citizens that deserve to be equal in every sense. So, I think it’s something that many are fighting for now.

AA: How important are references to international normative instruments in the constitution to ensuring women’s equality and are there alternative frameworks that could be used?

FK: The constitution on the whole, is one of the worst constitutions that Egypt has ever had. Nobody is happy with the constitution, except the regime, because it actually does not address many rights and does not have enough protection for vulnerable groups. It does not talk about violence; it does not talk about children’s rights, women’s rights and gender equality and so on. And it has no mention to international instruments at all, which is a major obstacle, and political parties are considering that this is not a constitution that we should stick to. And, everybody is putting a pressure on the president, who has announced, I think last month, that there is an intention of forming a small group to look at the articles in the constitution that are contentious.

AA: Do you think there are alternative frameworks that could be used alternative to the international instruments?

FK: I personally don’t think so. Egypt is party to the international instrument and one of the first countries that joined lots of the international instruments, if not all. We all respect our religion, we respect our culture; that is positive, but international instruments have been put also by Muslims, by Egyptians, it’s not put by the West alone, and we all have to stick to it.

AA: What role can the international community play to support women in Egypt?

FK: I think the international community has to differentiate between what is a real democracy and what is a false democracy. Because, I think the idea is that since we have elections now in Egypt, and since we have a new constitution, and they think that we have true democracy. But, they don’t know how the elections, and how it has been used actually to exploit people, because of poverty and how it exploits people in the name of religion, and also which is not a true democracy. So, I think the international community should look deeper into the difference between elections in Egypt and elections in the West, and try to help not to repeat the same mistakes. Because the West had actually helped a lot the dictators before, and now, I think they are helping another kind of dictator in the name of religion, which we’re not happy about, and which we are determined to change and not necessarily to wait for another four years until the next term of the election comes.

AA: And finally, how do you see the future of status of women in Egypt, what worries you most and what on the other hand brings optimism?

FK: What worries me is that choosing religion and culture, specificity again, and their family values, would be used to deprive women of their rights. So this is something I’m afraid of. But on the other hand, when I see the increasing number of women who were not at all feminist or talk about women’s rights before, and men also who were even against general equality, how now the numbers is increasing so much in support of gender equality, in support of women’s right, and with an insistence that there is no going back, because Egyptian women have participated fully in the revolution and they want to participate in the democracy one day, and they’re not going back home. This insistence is giving hope that things are going to change.

AA: On that hopeful note, we end this interview. I thank you so much for participating in this interview, and we wish you all the best in your new role.

FK: Thanks a lot.

About the photo: Women march to Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, January 2013. Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr