Egyptian Organization for Human Rights:
Dreaming the Future, Stretching the Limits
"Here there are cultural problems. We feel that all the time. This society is masculine. Women believe this ideology of the priority of men over women. This makes problems when talking about women's rights." Yousry Moustafa, Director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), speaks frankly about gender inequality. The dreams and hopes many Egyptian women have expressed to me about gender equality in the last few weeks seem to crash around my feet at his statement.
Nadia, the most active lawyer at EOHR dealing with legal aid for women, agrees, "Kassem Amin [French-educated lawyer and author of The Liberation of Women] encouraged women to go outside of the home. The most crucial problem he didn't solve was how to give social status to women. He removed the veil, but left her to suffer discrimination in society." Nadia pauses a moment, then stretches her hands out wide. "Fine, open the prison of the home. But Egypt is a big prison."
Nadia and Yousry explain how the EOHR fits into the scheme of things in Cairo. With 2500 members, it's the biggest human rights organization in Egypt addressing human rights. It's also the oldest, having been founded in 1985. When I ask Nadia what she most wants students like you to know, she says, gravely, "Our situation here is difficult and under the hand of government control all the time." Yousry, the translator, explains further about government control. A new nation-wide law will soon enable the government to "watch" every financial donation received by groups such as the EOHR. The EOHR Secretary General, Mr. Hafez Abu-Se'da, was arrested last year because EOHR published a report detailing the human rights abuses of individuals in El Kosha, a village in Upper Egypt. Since all of the victims were Coptic Christians, the EOHR was accused of threatening national security. After spending four days in prison, Mr. Abu-Se'da was released, (coincidentally or not?) in time to attend a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite numerous challenges, Yousry is confident in the group's ability to make positive social change. "We affect this society. Our ideas penetrate even the political discourse of political parties in Egypt. Maybe we have some problems, but we are effective."
Focusing on women's rights, as well as the rights of the disabled, Nadia and her legal aid coworkers feel frustrated. "There is not enough funding for this project. We have thousands of cases and four lawyers," explains Yousry. "Poverty in Egypt is increasing," points out Nadia, "and women and the disabled are the most affected. If in a legal dispute, they have to pay for court fees, case fees, and transportation, as well as their daily necessities." Yousry continues, "Sometimes we have a crisis. A woman will come to the office with a child and can't pay to get back home, so someone here pays out of their pocket. This project has to increase legal awareness. All the other organizations don't take this duty carefully. We receive a lot of women who don't know their rights. We raise awareness through training, meetings, and courses. This is important. We can empower them."
Yousry and Nadia believe that legal awareness encourages women to know their legal rights, which will help increase their status and sense of social self-worth. Nadia feels that through education women will not be relegated to second-class citizenship. By educating women about legal rights, Nadia encourages women to separate legal and religious matters. For example, el orfi or traditional marriages, are written on a paper and religiously approved, but not legally recognized. In such a marriage, a man has the right to go to court against his wife, but a woman does not have the right to go to court against her husband. The implementation of Sharia, Islamic religious law, forms the basis of Egyptian family law, but Egypt is not a Sharia-law country. Nadia states, "Law has impact on our life. Sharia is something separate."
Yousry's thoughts can be summarized in one sentence. "Woman has to change law." If women are to achieve equal status with men in a society that doesn't yet treat them equally, they have to start by changing the law. If they are not claiming their rights as human beings, then they must work towards that goal. "There is discrimination against women, against Copts, against poor people. We must work to empower people, and have the process go both ways, so not only do we help them, but they help us."
In the beginning of our conversation, Yousry pointed to the example of the strong feminist Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi, who took a political stance concerning women's and human rights issues. He dreams the future will be one where citizenship, the balance of power, and the state will not relate to one's gender at all. "If we can dream in our souls, then in reality we can expand our limits." I hope you become a part of those dreams for a future of truly equal status between men and women. The limits Yousry speaks of will be stretched, not only by activists here in Cairo, but by people like you, in your hometown, as well.
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