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Analysis: Will U.N. declaration on violence against women change Egypt?

Women shout slogans against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood during a protest rally near Tahrir Square in Cairo on March 8, 2013.
Women shout slogans against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood during a protest rally near Tahrir Square in Cairo on March 8, 2013.Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

After a decade of disagreement, 130 nations decided on Friday to adopt a historic, albeit non-binding, United Nations declaration on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. Language on gay rights, abortion and marital rape had reportedly been watered down to secure the agreement of Muslim and Catholic conservative states.

Mervat Tallawy, an Egyptian envoy and head of the National Council on Women, praised the accord. “International solidarity is needed for women’s empowerment and preventing this regressive mood, whether in the developing countries or developed, or in the Middle East in particular,” Tallawy told reporters after the successful vote. “It’s a global wave of conservatism, or repression against women, and this paper is a message that if we can get together, hold power together, we can be a strong wave against this conservatism.” 

Tellawy might have been tailoring her comments to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The group exerts tremendous influence on Egypt’s government after the election of a former leader and current member, President Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood had issued a statement on its English Ikhwanweb website describing how the declaration “would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries.”

The ten-point statement warned that the declaration would grant women equal rights to her husband, control over household finances, birth control, divorce, the ability to travel and would allow a woman to sue her husband in case of rape.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s statement was not refuted by the presidency, which issued a clarification of its stance on the declaration on violence against women.  The Office of the Assistant to the President of Egypt on Foreign Relations affirmed official rejection of violence against women in all of its forms “for any reason under any name,” but within the context of Egypt’s commitment to upholding its new constitution. However, the constitution was agreed to only by Islamists and rejected by secularists and moderates who felt that it failed to protect or improve women’s rights and human rights.

The passage of the declaration, a victory for women in general, may not change life in the short term for Egypt’s females. At present, 83% of Egyptian women face sexual harassment, over 90% have undergone female genital mutilation and almost 35% suffer domestic violence. Tallawy said in a statement issued by the National Council of Women that Egypt approved the charter on the condition that it be implemented according to each country’s laws and traditions and is accredited under the category of “moral obligation” to be implemented according to each country's local affairs. Soraya Bahgat, anti- sexual harassment activist, said there is still a lot of work to be done. 

"The fact that Egypt is one of the few countries that had opposed [the declaration] sheds light on where we stand on women's rights. Its not a surprise because our current practices do not espouse things in the declaration," Bahgat said. "For example, a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Christian man. There idea that a woman is a man's property is deeply rooted in Egytian society …. I am not sure how [the passage of the declaration] will change things today. These are things that need to be tackled in the long term. We need to focus on what obstacles we have inside the country."