Egypt’s controversial draft constitution has seen hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in protest.
On Tuesday, in a rally dubbed “The Last Warning”, tens of thousands of Egyptians surrounded the presidential palace in Cairo, while Wednesday saw violent clashes between supporters of and protestors against President Mohamed Morsi.
So far, six people have died in the clashes and four of Morsi’s advisers have resigned.
The people are angry about an apparent power grab by President Morsi who has temporarily expanded his powers by decree.
A snap referendum on the draft constitution has been announced for 15 December. But if ratified, women and the trade unions are among the groups who will have the most to lose.
Consisting of 234 articles, and written and approved by Egypt’s Islamist-led Constituent Assembly, the draft constitution has been widely condemned for “[seeking to] impose a one-sided religious extremist national identity, contrary to Egypt’s moderate character and openness to the world,” according to a coalition of secular opposition groups.
Women’s groups and human rights organisations have been particularly critical about the way it ignores calls for gender equality and limits democratic freedoms.
For instance, the draft constitution contains several provisions that run afoul of the international labour standards enshrined in the core conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The International Trade Union Confederation has expressed major concerns over several points in the draft constitution including the right to freedom of association.
While Article 52 recognises the right of trade unions to form and operate freely, Article 53 limits the extent to which unions are free to organise their structures by providing that only one union may be allowed per profession.
With regards to forced labour, which is an evident human rights violation, Article 63 states that “there shall be no forced labour except in accordance with the law.”
But the ILO has identified extremely limited circumstances under which the state may resort to forced labour; none of which are found in the proposed constitution.
On the contrary, Article 63 appears to give the legislature complete discretion to define when forced labour may be exacted.
While the principle of non-discrimination between men and women is found in the preamble, there is no specific language in the body of the constitution which clearly establishes the right of non-discrimination between men and women.
Article 33, which focuses on equality, provides a general statement of equal rights, but it omits a sentence which appeared in the previous three drafts on the specific bases for non-discrimination, including sex.
The only article which explicitly mentions women is Article 10, which relates the role of women in society to their duties towards the family, referring to the moral character and values of the Egyptian family.
Campaigners are concerned that this ambiguity could open up the possibility of legal changes to the rights of women in education, work and personal status laws.
Critics are also fearful that the newly-drafted constitution threatens women’s rights and paves the road for religious forces to impose their conservative interpretations on the status of women.
Egyptian women in particular have always been at the frontline of the fight for progress, but almost a year and a half after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, they are still waiting for the fulfillment of their simple demands.
Many Egyptian women are faced with a difficult economic situation.
Women are the main breadwinners for 30 to 40 per cent of Egyptian families yet unemployment rates amongst women have been three times higher than that of men for the past six years.
Female employment tends to be restricted to culturally-accepted professions, particularly in the fields of health and education.
While these sectors are relatively stable, in recent years workers have pushed back against poor administration, high corruption and an increase in short-term work contracts.
As a result there have been a number of strikes involving women in the last four years, particularly in the health sector. It is also worth noting that agricultural and domestic workers are totally excluded from labour laws.
This is also a huge wage gap between Egyptian men and women – as much as 20.3 per cent across all sectors and higher in the private sector.
The gap between labour codes and the application of laws is at the root of the problem as are the lack of policies which support women at work.
In such a patriarchal society, Egyptian women often face also verbal and sexual harassment at work, especially in factories, where employers and mangers take advantage of the victims’ fear of losing their jobs or gaining a bad reputation in a society where women are always to blame.