Welcome to Part 1 of our September 2023 Inspirational Interview with Azza Soliman, founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA).
Azza is an Egyptian lawyer and women’s human rights defender (WHRD). She has been working in the field of human rights and development for more than 25 years and has additional expertise as a trainer in the field of human rights concepts, women’s human rights and gender equality. She has worked on changing personal status law for Muslims and non-Muslims and trained governmental and non-governmental bodies on writing national and shadow reports on CEDAW. Azza also has experience in resisting domestic violence against women, citizenship and conflict resolution.
Part two of Azza’s interview will be published 4 September 2023.
All photos are courtesy of CEWLA.
1. How and why did you join the movement to end violence against women (VAW)?
My passion to support marginalised women started a long time ago. I have seen: how Personal Status Laws (PSL) are discriminatory; how there is a lack of a unified law against VAW; the waning of the law-abiding state; and the overpower of dictatorships, militarisation and securitisation of regimes, especially in Arabic speaking countries.
I realised that it’s important to work on combating VAW, especially domestic and family violence, and to break a lot of the taboos on issues like: incest, wife battery, depriving women of education or work, female genital mutilation (FGM), and compulsory veiling. This is why I developed my knowledge, along with pressure and change tools, to include the international, constitutional, religious and on-the-ground reality of women’s economical, social, and cultural status. Finally, I am aware that customs and traditions are sometimes more potent than religion, which has some demeaning interpretations for women. Therefore, it was very clear to me the need to join forces in organising to combat VAW.
2. The Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) was established in 1995 as “a feminist organisation that campaigns to promote gender equality, focusing in particular on legislative reform and awareness-raising”. How did CEWLA come to be founded?
CEWLA is an non-governmental organisation (NGO) that aims to provide legal support to Egyptian women according to the Egyptian constitution and laws, as well as international conventions. CEWLA also seeks to provide women with skills and capacities that enable them to exercise their rights and overcome their problems. CEWLA was essentially created as an initiative to combat violence against women through raising their legal awareness, and supporting women to access their legal, social, economic and cultural rights.
CEWLA has been providing its services for more than 25 years, centred on two main goals/issues to respond to the legal empowerment challenges and problems of the target groups. First, CEWLA works directly to tackle the essential legal demands of women victims of gender-based violence and the shortcomings of the current laws (especially personal status law/PSL). Second, CEWLA addresses the problematic areas and discriminatory texts against women in different laws.
3. Could you give us an overview of the programmes and initiatives that CEWLA has had for providing legal support for the victims and survivors of VAW in Egypt since 1995?
CEWLA has developed its methodologies through 4 main programmes:
- The Women’s Access to Justice Programme works on preparing law proposals relevant to women’s rights and supporting the access to justice for poor and marginalised groups through legal assistance.
- The Combating Violence against Women Programme offers: awareness seminars, mediation sessions and various types of support groups; prepares monitoring reports about VAW; provides shelter for abused and trafficked women; and conducts specialised studies on issues like honour crimes, FGM, early marriage, incest and women trafficking.
- The Right to Health Programme enhances sexual/reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for different community categories.
- The Women’s Public Participation Programme, just launched in 2023, aims to support and promote women’s social, economic, cultural, political, and civil rights and build the feminist movement in different realms.
4. As one of the earliest liberal lawyers to work with Islamic groups in Egypt, you have been instrumental in promoting the structuring and organising of the process of producing a fatwa with a focus on the interpretations related to women’s rights and their position within Islam. To that end, you also created the Religious Reform & Renewal Forum (RRRF) for social scientists, lawyers, politicians, and religious leaders to meet to discuss and produce informed public statements about relevant issues and causes related to women in Islam. How has your work in this area helped move CEWLA’s work forward with regards to addressing VAW in Egypt?
When working on the ground, especially while drafting PSL, we usually got feedback from beneficiaries and participants on how it’s a religious matter first, and a fear or skepticism about engaging with it. Here we had to discuss whether to go to a secular or religious approach exclusively or try to bridge the perspectives. We chose to engage with the religious discourses and not shy away or lose focus on our secular positionality.
We took this approach when we realised that legal code is founded on Fiqh (opinions of older religious scholars) and not Shari’a which means, religiously, the opinions are debatable, refutable and amendable. This helped CEWLA have the lead in taboo discussions, as well as offer insights to enlightened scholars among Muslim and Christian clerks who helped review the draft law and give constructive feedback that was on point.
5.Since 1995, what sort of impact has CEWLA had on Egypt’s approach and attitudes towards VAW in general?
Throughout the years, CEWLA has worked extensively on issues related to VAW, including: FGM, early marriage, human trafficking, tribal marriage, laws and legislation regarding personal status laws, anti-GBV laws and others. This was not an easy journey. However, through the implementation of activities, lobbying and advocacy across the years, more and more participation and cooperation from governmental institutions occurred. This includes the following:
- The establishment of an anti-GBV unit in the Imbaba police station.
- Passing of CEWLA’s PSL draft law in the legislative committee of the Egyptian parliament, after its adoption by PM Nashwa Eldeeb, in order to issue a new PSL that is premised on fairness and equality for Egyptian family members.
- The cooperation of various state schools in order to provide sexual and reproductive health sessions for pupils and spread awareness of bodily autonomy to combat child harassment and molestation, and FGM.