Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

UK Government must support women in Egypt - 06/06/11

On the Andrew Marr show yesterday, Harriet Harman called on the Government to ensure their aid supports women in Egypt. She has also written to Andrew Mitchell calling on him to make sure that women in Egypt know the UK Government is on their side.

Harriet Harman's Comments on Andrew Marr.

AM: Labour's Deputy Leader Harriet Harman has recently returned from Egypt where an impressive feature of the uprising was the involvement of so many women, especially younger women, but will women's rights be respected as the country's new political order emerges? Harriet Harman, welcome.

AM: Let me ask about Egypt because you've just come back from there. Lots and lots of women in Tahrir Square and we saw all of those great images. But actually in terms of the people who are now running the country and are writing the new constitution, how many women are involved?

HH: Well unfortunately on the constitutional committee, there are no women at all, despite the fact that in the previous regime there were women on the constitutional court. And I think that there's you know absolutely a sense of optimism and hope for the future around the revolution and you know great optimism, but there is a real concern that women's social, economic and political rights will be set back. And I think that the government, our government has got a real role to play to support Egyptian women, making sure that democracy and human rights are a reality for women as well as men, because if they're not, then it will not be progress; it will be turning the clock back.

AM: It's a difficult line to draw because clearly this is an Egyptian process for Egyptians to manage, and yet I suppose not just this government but all around Europe money and support is going in and so there is a sort of right to be involved, I guess.

HH: And I very much support the money that the UK government's putting in and Europe, but actually this is about support for Egyptian women. I mean the Alliance of Arab Women had a huge conference and have produced their manifesto. Their top demand is that it should be a secular state, that they should have reserved seats for women in parliament - which they had before and there's now a threat that there won't be any reserved seats for women in parliament. So I mean if you ...

AM: Are you concerned with the Muslim Brotherhood? I mean they're clearly doing very, very well indeed.

HH: Well it's always been a controversial agenda. The advance of women in Egypt has been a controversial and a difficult agenda and a struggle, and we've got to make sure that people then don't actually turn the clock back. I mean if you think of the situation, Egyptian women have made advances, but something like 74% of girls between the ages of 8 and 12 have female genital mutilation ...

AM: ...I read that statistic. I can't believe that.

HH: ... which is a massive figure. And you know when I was there ...

AM: Is that really true?

HH: Yes, it is. And when I was there, I arranged to meet up with this woman and we were going to go to a restaurant together. I was going to take her out for a meal. And when she heard the name of the restaurant I was suggesting, she said, "Oh have we got a man with us, or is it just us?" And I said, "No, it's just us." And she said, "We couldn't possibly go there. You know we would be harassed by men in the restaurant. We've got to go here." You know I met a woman who speaks brilliant English, German and Italian, and I said, you know "Have you been abroad? Where have you been?" and she said, "I haven't been anywhere because I'm not married yet, so I can't go without my husband." And we met a woman paediatrician who'd worked all her life on FGM, Female Genital Mutilation, and she couldn't come out to meet us because she didn't have a man to escort her, so we had to go to her flat. So when you think about it, women's rights have been pushed forward by Egyptian women, but we must make absolutely sure that we - what I call progressive conditionality - that we use our money to make sure we back those women up.


Harriet Harman's letter to Andrew Mitchell

31 May 2011

Dear Andrew,

 I am writing to ask for you to do all you can to support the women's agenda in Egypt at this pivotal time. What action is already underway?  Has this been raised with the current Egyptian government?  Have you raised it in meetings with your EU colleagues, with your US counterparts, in the UN and with the World Bank?  What more could you do? 

 The UK government has played an important role in the "Arab Spring" events - not least in Libya.  What happens in Egypt will send a strong signal - for good or ill - to the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.  It is a pivotal moment and we must ensure that women in Egypt are able to play a full and equal role in their country's future in the way they demand - rather than seeing the clock turned back.

Women in Egypt

 I have just returned from Egypt where I met the Alliance for Arab Women and UN Women. Their concern is that the progress that has been made for women over the past decade could be set back.  The Alliance for Arab Women have asked for help from those who support their objectives.

 Though much progress has been made, there is still a long way to go.  Female Genital Mutilation is still carried out on about 74% of girls in Egypt - despite it being against the law.  Women remain unequal in every sphere of life - social, economic and political.   The revolution is a moment to build on the progress that has been made or see that progress set back.

 Because the progressive women's agenda is under challenge and one of the arguments being used is that it was supported by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, I have asked carefully whether supportive intervention by the UK would exacerbate that problem. The Alliance for Arab Women is clear that it is their agenda as Egyptian women and that they are asking us to support their demands for the future. 

 The NGOs - under the leadership of the Alliance for Arab Women - are preparing a manifesto of demands and are planning to launch it at a conference in Cairo of 3,000 women on June 4th.

 The manifesto of demands will include: The convention will aim to come up with a declaration of specific demands to be introduced to the authorities, and suggestions for the inclusion of women human rights in the new constitution.

  • A secular state
  • Women's economic, social and political rights entrenched in the constitution

Women voters

There is a need to ensure that more women get the ID that is necessary to vote, to encourage them to vote in the election and to encourage them to see the vote as their own and to exercise it independently.

 Women candidates

 There is, as yet, no commitment to the continuation of the pre-existing allocation of "women's seats" in parliament

 The pre-existing women MPs may well not be candidates as the party with which many are identified, the NDP, is now disbanded.

 It is therefore important to engage in a programme to identify, encourage to stand, and then to support, women candidates for the September election.

 Arab Partnership

 Last week your Government announced the expansion of the ‘Arab Partnership' fund to £110 million.  A significant part of this fund, which your department will help finance, will be used to support political reform. Will you ensure that this support embodies the condition of equal participation of women?


 I know your officials will be able to give you a comprehensive briefing on all this, but I set out below how I see the situation.

 Women were actively involved in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square which led to the ousting of the Mubarak regime.

 Over the past decade legal, democratic and economic advances had been made by women

 This progress was and remains controversial.   The revolution is being used by those who always opposed women's rights as an opportunity to turn the clock back.

 They include in their arguments that these rights are anti-men, anti-child and anti-Egyptian culture. And, as I have said, they use the fact that Mrs Mubarak supported this progress, as an argument to discredit it.

Though there are  - from before the revolution - women in leading positions on constitutional issues, such as on the constitutional court, no women are included in any of the committees that are framing the new constitution.

 The Alliance for Arab Women believes that, although the revolution is about Liberty, Dignity and Social Justice, women's rights do need to be entrenched and it is not sufficient to regard those rights as axiomatic.  

 Women's economic participation

 Clearly, following the G8 at Deauville, there is a major programme of support for the Egyptian economy. This includes the announcement at the G8 last week of £70 million from DFID to support economic reform across the Middle East and North Africa, starting with Egypt and Tunisia. The World Bank, to whom the UK is a leading donor, will also be playing a major part.  Can we please ensure that there is a completely equal emphasis on employment of women as well as employment of men? 

 On the question of support for new and existing businesses, can you ensure that women's businesses get no less support than that going to men's?

 An independent Trade Union movement is clearly going to be important as part of the future economic development and democratisation. Can you please ensure that where these programmes are supported by the international community they include support for women participating in Trade Unions on equal terms with men?

 I look forward to hearing from you,

 Yours sincerely,


 Harriet Harman QC MP

Shadow Secretary of State for International Development


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