Azza Suleiman

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Advocating for Equal Rights for Egypt’s Women
Azza Suleiman
“Religion is meant to bring people joy; therefore there is no place for discrimination against women perpetuated by religious institutions and clergy.”

A prominent campaigner and powerful lobbyist, Ms. Azza Suleiman is one of the most active advocates in the field of human rights in general, and women's rights in particular. For more than 10 years, she has partnered with Equality Now on campaigns to combat violence against women with a strong focus on female genital mutilation. She has also successfully contributed to the repeal or amendment of a significant number of sex discriminatory laws, and in 2009, worked with Equality Now to submit a statement to the Arab League Chief demanding the creation of a UN Special Rapporteur to combat discriminatory laws against women.

Ms. Suleiman has been the director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) since its founding in 1995. CEWLA is a leading Egyptian women’s lawyers group that advances women’s rights through the law. It provides legal aid, mainly to impoverished women, and advocates against female genital mutilation (FGM), ‘honor crimes’ and discriminatory divorce laws.

As Egyptian women continue to call for integration of their rights in post-revolution Egypt and for implementation of the 2011 Egyptian Women’s Charter -- endorsed by half a million of the country’s citizens -- we discussed the main obstacles Egypt’s women are facing and how CEWLA is helping to address them.

1. How did you start working in women’s rights in Egypt; what motivated you to start your organization?

I started working in politics at a young age as I have always had a dream for my country that includes equality and justice for all and for women to finally be given respect, since they have historically been looked down upon in society and been made to feel like second class citizens. I was motivated to start my organization largely because of my personal experiences witnessing the challenges and obstacles that have hindered women’s advancement. In 1994, I started working at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, where I witnessed firsthand the tragedies suffered by female relatives of members of the Islamic groups. These women were subjected to torture and forced-abortion by Egypt’s state security agency in order to pressure their male counterparts to surrender to the security force. After working there for a year I left to start CEWLA, which is located in the Boulaq El Dakrour region.

One of the main objectives of the organization is to provide legal support and legal aid to vulnerable women living in the most underprivileged and impoverished areas of the country, keeping in mind that constitutes the vast majority of the population of Egypt. While legal illiteracy is common among all segments of Egyptian society, including the middle and upper class, it is especially prevalent in poor and marginalized communities. The absence of a state of law, ignorance of the law, poverty and feelings of helplessness, often cause people to unwittingly break the law. Once a law is broken, trying to navigate the judicial system can be quite expensive and often results in unexpected consequences, including: being held legally-accountable due to a lack of understanding of legal procedures; unknowingly participating in criminal acts due to legal ignorance; and due to widespread gender discrimination, the further loss of women’s rights, and frequently, their property and inheritance.

2. What do you feel are the main challenges facing women in Egypt?

Egyptian women face many daily challenges, including:

  • The lack of democracy in Egypt and the existence of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces which has been ruling the country during the transitional period without clear guidelines outlining its functions and authority; 
  • Increased violence due to the lack of safety and security in the absence of the rule of law;
  • Traditional customs that lead to illiteracy and increased school dropout rates for girls and young women. Because of poverty, if a family has to choose who they can afford to send to school, they overwhelmingly choose to educate their boys; 
  • Child marriage;
  • Discriminatory laws, and especially those pertaining to personal status laws, which are derived from Islamic law and dictate the rules of marriage, divorce, custody, alimony, inheritance and employment;
  • Reactionary religious discourses that undermine women’s rights;
  • Uninformed media discourse, which deepens customs, traditions and the reactionary community discourse.

3. How does your organization address violence against women?

At CEWLA we deal with very sensitive matters relating to women such as, “honor crimes,” rape, incest, depriving women of their inheritance and arranged marriages deals. At the legislative level we place women’s issues on the agenda of the authorities by conducting dialogue, providing suggestions, submitting shadow reports to applicable UN committees and by following up on concluding remarks with the relevant governmental bodies. In the community we have programs for illiterate women to make them aware of their legal rights within the existing law, we conduct trainings on women’s legal and human rights targeting religious clergy, and we work on religious discourse and the adoption of Islamic jurisprudence in line with developments in society. CEWLA also provides legal suggestions on laws that discriminate against women and administers campaigns including the importance of having a family law for Christians, the need to amend personal status laws, an anti-FGM initiative, a call to create a law against depriving women of their inheritance and a media campaign to combat violence against women. Lastly, the organization provides legal, social and psychological aid to women who reach out to us and is in the process of opening a shelter for female victims of violence.

4. What kind of actions and activities are you and your organization implementing to support women in Egypt?

We have implemented several programs to combat violence against women including a comprehensive program that deals with incest, rape, and inheritance. In doing so, we have built a coalition to combat violence against women that consists of 72 organizations throughout Egypt. We have a program that lobbies to change the discriminatory laws against Christian and Muslim women by calling on the authorities to comply with international conventions, especially CEDAW. CEWLA has programs targeting illiteracy and legal illiteracy and legal litigation support services for female victims of violence that work to strengthen them legally, socially, economically and politically. A unit for monitoring and documenting violations against women was created to facilitate the provision of support to women and to highlight their problems to relevant legal and social bodies. Additionally, CEWLA has training programs for young men and women to raise their gender awareness and to create community dialogue on the importance of actively participating in the formation of a new constitution that will take gender issues into account. We strongly believe that the new constitution should be written by the people it will govern.

5. What challenges and risks do you and your fellow activists face by working in this field?

Some of the main challenges facing us as activists are:

  • The Supreme Council for Armed Forces, which currently rules Egypt, defames the reputations of activists by accusing them of implementing foreign agendas in Egypt. They also shut down our organizations and jail activists; 
  • Media agencies that damage the reputations of civil society organizations by misrepresenting our work; 
  • Administrative and financial restrictions imposed on civil society organizations;
  • The lack of a cohesive activist network;
  • Prior to the revolution, activists were constantly harassed by state security members; I myself was a victim for demanding democracy for Egypt. Nowadays it still happens but they are doing it in less open ways. For example, they frequently delay the granting of approval on the projects of the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSS), increase the restrictions on civil society organizations and have increased the number of investigations and inspections on campaigns mounted by the organizations.

6. What kind of laws or regulations do you think the Egyptian government should draft to support women in Egypt?

There is a tremendous need to change the existing personal status law including marriage, custody, alimony and divorce for both Christians and Muslims. Additionally, family protection laws are needed, certain clauses within the penal code with regard to incest and “honor crimes” need to be changed and labor laws need to be amended especially where domestic and agriculture workers, who are typically women, are concerned.

7. What suggestions would you give the Egyptian government to address women’s rights after the revolution?

The Egyptian government should work to include women in the different committees that have been created and encourage them to actively participate in the new parties. By playing an active role, women will be able to interact with the People’s Assembly and the Shura councils. In addition, policy makers and planners should develop a concrete plan of action that will make a real difference in the lives of girls post revolution, including: incorporating women on the steering committee that is putting together the constitution; including language in the constitution that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender; implementing a quota system that guarantees women will be included in all governmental public institutions; ensuring that women are part of the judicial system; and a reconstruction of the Ministry of Media to address the depiction of women in the media and to address our issues, needs and demands. The Egyptian government should also cooperate and network with civil society organizations to increase opportunities for women’s empowerment, including initiatives addressing illiteracy and combating harmful traditional practices.

8. To conclude, what steps need to be taken to better the situation of Egyptian women?

  • Educate the media so that they will cover women’s rights using the human rights perspective;
  • Train judges on the proper use of international conventions for women’s human rights;
  • Build the professional capacity of staff working in women’s shelters; 
  • Develop women’s potential as full, equal members of society, both in the private and public spheres;
  • Address the immediate needs of women and provide them with legal and psychological support;
  • Place women’s issues on the agenda of the new government in all areas;
  • Educate the public on the importance of gender equality by conducting workshops and by encouraging dialogue among civil society organizations, the media and religious clergy.

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For more information about Ms. Suleiman’s organization please visit www.cewla.org (in Arabic).