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It is well documented that, during the mass anti-government protests centred on Cairo’s Tahrir Square over the last two years, numerous instances of sexual violence against women have occurred. These events, which have escalated in recent weeks, have shocked observers and caused international outrage. To some commentators at least, it is appalling that supposedly democratic revolutionaries should act in this way.

Sadly, this perspective is naïve. History tells us that liberationists are frequently selective in their sympathies, and that the plight of women has rarely been accorded priority for radical change. As I note in Gender and the Constitution (2008), the American feminist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, found herself excluded, because she was a woman, from the delegates’ seats at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. The experience inspired her to rewrite the American Declaration of Independence as a ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ (it was later adopted at the Seneca Falls Convention, convened by Stanton and Lucretia Mott in 1848). The Declaration lists the ‘history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman’. Stanton does not mention rape or sexual violence, but concludes with the charge that man ‘has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy [woman’s] confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.’ As we know - and can now openly say - sexual assault is one of the ‘traditional’ methods of enforcing a state of dependence. It also has the effect of limiting women’s participation in public life.

Modern liberationist movements are not exempt from these ‘methods’. They may not formally exclude women from their ranks, but sexism and sometimes sexual assault have been part of their story. Any activist woman who lived through the 1960s will remember the double standard.

But it would be a mistake to treat sexism as the equivalent of violent physical attack. What is particularly shocking about the Tahrir Square events, even for the historically open-eyed, is the intensity and concentration of the sexual violence. The lack of police intervention has aggravated things. According to Human Rights Watch, police have stayed away from Tahrir Square during large protests, leaving women protesters unprotected against gang attacks. Not only have women been brutalised, but a culture of blaming the victim, and traditional codes of shame and disgrace, have compounded the injuries.

When customary contempt for women combines with the destruction of ordered mechanisms of restraint, women’s vulnerability to sexual attack is maximised. In countries where order is breaking down and dramatic political transitions are occurring, women’s rights are especially precarious.

Egypt is currently in a period of deep transitional instability. As in other comparable countries in recent deacdes, the framing and re-framing of a new constitution will be a central part of the transition process. Constitutional stability must be among the key goals.

After the overthrow of President Morsi, the 2012 Egyptian constitution was quickly put under review. A committee of experts, recently appointed, will have a month to propose amendments which will then be referred to a 50 member representative committee. A minimum of ten places, it seems, are ear-marked for women.

The 2012 constitution was considered by many to be deficient in protecting women’s rights; concern focused on a provision requiring the state to take all measures to ensure the equality of women with men, but subjecting these measures to the ‘rules of Islamic jurisprudence’. The website Women’s eNews notes that ‘some are hoping the rewriting of Egypt’s constitution … could mean a new era of women’s freedoms since [the 2012 constitution] did little to enshrine women’s rights or their protection.’

Others are doubtful. It is well known that, in the many cases around the world in which oppressive regimes have been toppled, what began as a commitment to women’s constitutional rights was sidelined or traded away in the final constitutional settlement.

In the immediate, there is little a constitution can do to shelter women from violence. But, is there anything it can do to protect women’s rights over the longer term?

Probably, most people will think straight away of a bill of rights, with a legally-enforceable gender equality or anti-discrimination provision. But to think primarily of legal challenges and of vindication in the courts puts the cart before the horse. Legal redress only comes (if at all) once the legislature, the administration, and the courts have been established, the electoral rules agreed, the representatives elected, the personnel appointed, the rules of process adopted, and the laws themselves enacted, enforced and challenged. Every step in this long institutional march towards the courts involves design choices. The most important focus of constitutional design - if gender equality is the goal – must be provisions that facilitate, even require, the representation of women in every institution and every decision-making forum. This includes writing and ratifying the constitution itself. Even before the first draft is contemplated, women need to be involved, both informally and formally, especially on the constituent assemblies.

Courts are historically conservative institutions; legal challenges are lengthy and expensive; powerful parties are pitted against weaker individuals. The representation of women in the processes of constitution-making and in the institutions these processes will ultimately establish is much more important than constitutional statements of equality rights. Gender equality provisions may be desirable, but they will be ineffective where there is no institutional requirement to listen to women’s voices.

It is the goal of representation that should be at the forefront of feminists’ minds. And not just in Egypt.