Power of Representation: Prospects of a female presidential candidate in Egypt

In the past month, former Egyptian State TV news anchor Bothaina Kamel announced her intention to enter the Egyptian presidential race. Samira Ibrahim, the spokesperson for Kamel’s campaign, told the online newspaper Mada Masr that Kamel decided to run to pursue the issue of women rights; as she believed the two main potential candidates were not giving the matter enough attention. Kamel stated that she was pressured by women rights organizations to run for presidency.

The campaign spokesperson further asserted that the goal of Kamel’s candidacy is to have a woman in the race, even if her chances of winning are slim. However, the official registration for the presidential race has closed, and Kamel was not able to register. Kamel announced her bid for presidency in the past elections in 2012. Yet, her attempt was similarly not successful, as she did not receive enough signatures.

Such announcement raises speculations about the possibility of a female candidate running in the Egyptian presidential elections and the implications of such a matter. What if a woman actually runs for president in an Egyptian presidential election? Would this sort of representation advance the status of Egyptian women?

It is highly unlikely that a woman presidential bid would be successful as the Egyptian political sphere is fundamentally male dominated. Yet, it still might have fruitful implications for women in Egypt and the Middle East. It would shed light on the role women can play in Egyptian politics. A female candidate defies dichotomous social norms and expectations, so she could set an empowering example. It even could reflect a milestone in the country’s transition towards democracy.

But can this representation alone advance women’s status?

It is rather a reductionist outlook to assume that a female candidate in a patriarchal configuration can pursue women’s rights.  The dilemma is entrenched in several aspects of the society, and cannot simply be elucidated through a female candidate. Practically, gender subordination is internalized in the Egyptian culture and shapes our behavior towards women.  It requires more in depth solution on the micro and macro levels change process actions.

If the purpose of a female candidate or president is to redirect state’s focus on women, it has previous precedents in Egypt. Former regimes have adopted some policies to address women’s marginalization and “modernize” society. Nevertheless, these attempts were rather ineffective. The problem with most of these policies is that they do not bear the challenges the third world countries face or their norms, beliefs and culture.  Most of the women empowerment programs in Egypt are Euro-centric and do not tackle gender development or advancement through the cultural or social context.  Furthermore, these attempts did not trickle down on the population. Instead, they further created a gap between women of different classes.

The culture of a female leader is somehow foreign to the majority of ordinary Egyptian women. A westernized-like middle or upper class woman running for president reflects an alienated image to ordinary Egyptian women. The majority of women would not relate to her. It is highly inaccurate to believe that Egyptian women are a homogenous group, particularly with the widening socio-economic gap. Female figure in high positions only represent certain segments, primarily privileged high or upper-middle class women.

Although a female candidate might seem as a breakdown in the tents of patriarchy, it would not empower all Egyptian women.  It is critical to empower women in the public and private sphere. State-endorsed feminism should be aiming to empower rural and urban women, middle class and working class, in all sectors of the society. However, women should be represented first on micro and macro levels, and in legislation, to challenge the intellectual infrastructure of the patriarchal society.

Currently, in Latin America, there are four female head of states; Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica. In fact, it sets a record of women presidents.  However, the rise of female leaders in Latin America is no surprise; as roughly 1 in 4 legislators is a woman, according to the statistics of Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean in 2012. Quotas in 16 Latin American states have helped achieving record numbers of female lawmakers in the region. Regardless, Latin American women still face various challenges; as 47 percent have been victims of sexual violence at least once. Nevertheless, around 70 million women joined the Latin American workforce in the last 20 years, leading to the reduction of regional poverty by 30 percent.

Latin America sets an exceptional example that representation is a cornerstone for women empowerment.  If Egyptian women suffer from lack of representation in decision-making bodies, then women’s issues would not be properly addressed. Yet, to believe that a female candidate is the ultimate solution is a fallacy.

A female candidate would reflect an image of Arab Muslim female leadership. However, this image would hardly be empowering if women in the society remain marginalized. If the culture of objectifying women persists, if society is still unaware of the importance of women empowerment, if equal opportunities for both sexes are not attained, then female presidential candidates will hardly make a difference.

This Op-ed was originally published in the Middle East Media Center for Studies website http://www.memcs.com by myself. 

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