Hillary Clinton is doing something this weekend that no U.S. secretary of state has ever done: meeting with a democratically elected president of Egypt. The free and fair election that brought Mohamed Morsi to office was a milestone in Egypt's transition to democracy, and Clinton's meeting is an important symbolic gesture to acknowledge his legitimacy as Egypt's new leader.
But the meeting should be about more than just symbolism. While Morsi has pledged to respect the rights of all Egyptians and name a woman to be one of his vice presidents, there is good reason to question his commitment to equality and pluralism. As a senior Muslim Brotherhood official (he recently resigned to assume the presidency), he represented the group's older, more conservative wing, helping draft a 2007 platform that called for a council of Islamic scholars to vet legislation for its compatibility with Islamic law and held that a woman could not be president of Egypt. More recently, during the presidential campaign, he used the slogan, "The Quran is our constitution."
Clinton is in a unique position to press the president to demonstrate his support for the rights of all Egyptians -- including women -- given her longtime leadership on behalf of the rights of women and girls. From her seminal speech at the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference, where she famously declared that "women's rights are human rights," to her recent efforts to promote women's participation in peace and security efforts, she has been a persistent and eloquent champion of women's rights at home and abroad. Clinton can cement this legacy when she meets with Morsi by standing up for Egyptian women.
While the Muslim Brotherhood's policies are clearly discriminatory toward women, the problems facing Egyptian women long predate the organization's rise to power. Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, women were grossly underrepresented in parliament and senior government positions, and security officials subjected female detainees to sexual assaults in the form of "virginity tests," which have continued under the military regime that replaced him. A court ruling banned the practice in December 2011, but in an important test case in March, a military court acquitted an army doctor accused of performing "virginity tests" on women apprehended during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square.
Women, meanwhile, were at the forefront of the Egyptian uprising. According to a recent Gallup poll, 30 percent of participants in the revolution were women, and more women (82 percent) than men (75 percent) supported its aims. But progress for women, like progress overall, has been elusive during this period of transition and military rule.
The Cairo-based Nazra for Feminist Studies, for instance, has documented many recent incidents of violence against women, and posted testimonies from women who were sexually assaulted in and around Tahir Square. The attacks, says Nazra, are "calculated and organized so as to scare women away from the public sphere, to punish women for their participation, and to keep them at home."
In the recently disbanded parliament -- which Morsi attempted to reconvene, triggering a showdown with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces -- only eight of the 508 members were women. Put another way, women made up less than two percent of parliament in a country whose population is almost 50 percent female. During its brief existence, the male and Islamist-dominated body took up proposals to decrease the marriage age for girls from 16 to 14 and revoke a woman's right to divorce her husband.