After decades of the former regime's rule, the Egyptian street suffers from a distorted mindset that combines all the ailments of democracy: bigotry, lack of respect for divergent opinions, and a predisposition toward nationalism and tribalism, even when it comes at the expense of the general good - and this is especially the case when it comes to women. This is the impression I got after speaking with numbers of people about the status of women in Aswan after the abolition of the quota for female representation, as Aswan has had a female representative in the People's Assembly only once – Amal Abdel Karim from the National Democratic Party, who won a seat during the period between 1984 and 1986 when the open list system was being applied. However, Mrs. Abdel Karim is considered an exceptional case, who by force of personality and a boost from tribalism was able to establish herself as NDP candidate at that time.
Female candidates speak about themselves
On the road to Khazan Aswan, I stopped to ask for directions in the al-Karour region at a mosque called Farouq Mosque after the man who built it. I passed by some elderly men sitting on the mosque's stone patio, most of them locals, particularly Nubians. They were following the custom in Nubian villages, where people get together every day after dinner to talk about life and politics. I asked for Kareema Bekar's house, and one of the neighborhood children – who was no older than 15 – took me there by motorcycle. Despite his young age, he knew the houses of the neighborhood and their inhabitants very well, who number more than 5,000 people.
I was on the way to visit Kareema Bekar, former candidate for the women's quota in the previous legislative elections in 2010, and candidate in the upcoming elections. When I asked her her view on what impact abolishing the quota system has had on women's political activity, she said, "The problem with the parties in Aswan in the current elections is that they aren't putting women at the top of the list. We know that voters cast their vote according to the person, so this ends up causing an injustice for women, especially after the electoral districts have been expanded." Mrs. Bekar predicted that not giving women sufficient opportunities for political participation will have a negative impact on legislation that concerns women, including family and divorce law.
Kareema Bekar joined the NDP 24 years ago when she was 18 years old, and climbed the ranks from village unit member to women's secretary in the unit, to committee member for Bandar Aswan, to member of the local council for Aswan from 2002 to 2008, and from 2008 until the local council was dissolved after the revolution.
Next I visited Suheir al-Matani, who hails from the city of Kom Ombo and who ran for the People's Assembly in the 2010 elections when the quota system was still in effect; now, she is a potential candidate in the upcoming elections. Mrs. Al-Matani believes there are many obstacles to women running for office, such as widespread illiteracy, political ignorance, and the role of money in elections. Al-Matani says, "The problem with the proportional list system is that women are just there for decoration, since most of the time they are put at the bottom of the list, even if they are popular candidates. In the end, the votes a female candidate brings in are put at the service of the rest of the names on the list." In addition to the weakness of the parties, voters choose according to the person and not the electoral platform, as al-Matani says about her electoral district. For these reasons, she's not excited about participating in the list system, adding that the quota system used to provide a sort of equal opportunity, especially in communities that would refuse to elect a woman otherwise.
Differing views on role of women in politics
If these are the views of some women candidates, then what do their male colleagues from among party candidates and officials think? Party Coordinator in Aswan governorate for the Free Egyptians Party Ashraf Girgis thinks that the quota system encouraged women to participate, and that things have become more difficult since it has been abolished, because the electoral district has been expanded and it contains various tribal communities that would not appreciate being represented by a woman in parliament, even more so as the governorate only has one electoral district. My interview with Dr. Ashraf took place two days after the candidate registration window had opened as he was meeting some doctors at a coffee shop on the night of the Doctors' Syndicate elections. I also met there Dr. Ashraf Makawy, General Secretary of the Egyptian Democratic Party in Aswan, who talked to us about the status of women in the new system, saying "There's no quota system now in politics or any type of discrimination, even positive discrimination. As a result, putting women on the list no longer has to be a superficial gesture to fill out the list. It should be their choice based on the extent of their presence and activity in the community." Dr. Makawy added that the former system upended the former way of doing things in politics, when there were no women at all. The ground has now been cleared to combat tribalism and prejudice, and since we now count women among our cadres, they are able to establish themselves in the future on the list as a effective element in political life.
On the other hand, some male candidates think that the fall in the number of female candidates is a natural result of their weak character, candidates such as Bushra Fahmy Khalil, who thinks that if it was up to the parties, they would not have put any women on their lists, "since men in this society wouldn't accept a woman at the top of the list." Then there is Abu Bakr al-Shater, who is member of the board of directors of the Sons of Dahmeet Association, member of a committee responsible for the Nubian issue, and People's Assembly candidate for the Peace Party in 2010. He's currently an independent candidate who has hope in the next generation, in so far as this generation, as he sees it, has the freedom to choose, and that the rising generation is worlds away from the tribal mentality. He said, "I'm expecting a surprise from the young people who are unexpectedly running. I'm betting on them. I think that when people don't vote for a woman it's due to the weakness of the candidate herself, and her inability to interact with the community and deal with its problems."
Civil society activists: society is male-dominated and tribalistic
People from the new generation are in agreement on the causes behind the problem of women's representation in Upper Egypt. As Maysara Abdoun of the Wafd Party and the Revolution Youth Coalition sees it, the people of his village, which lies to the west of Aswan, did not take much of an interest when they were choosing among female candidates on the quota system in past elections, because the nature of society there inclines more to masculinity and tribalism, and would not accept a woman representing them in the People's Assembly. Mohamed Hassan, who is an inhabitant of the Kom Ombo in Aswan and a member of the Wast Party, says that 90% of Upper Egyptians would reject a woman as representative for societal reasons, adding, "I think that the solution is for women to try to appear like competent party members rather than to play politics, since society thinks that their most important role is doing housework."
Likewise, Hayam Mahmoud Ali, a community activist from the village of Aniba, thinks that substituting the quota system with the proportional list system will reduce opportunities for women in the next parliament, because the parties are placing women far down on the list. She says, "I think women are one of the marginalised classes in society, and when women run for election, most of the votes they get will be from other women."
*Uncredited pictures provided by the journalist.