While the core of the group's objections derives from their interpretation of Islamic law, their complaints revealed what many in Egypt feel is a regressive long-term plan for women in Egyptian society. The Brothers, who propelled President Mohamed Morsi to power, warned that the UN is seeking to place the right to decide when to work or where to travel in the hands of women, rather than their husbands; that a married man who rapes his wife would face the same legal risks as if a stranger had raped the woman; or that a woman who had a son out of wedlock could make the same demands on the father as if she were married to him.
While no UN document would have any effect whatsoever on Egyptian society unless Egypt agreed with it, I was curious as to why the Muslim Brotherhood was so riled up. A proposal to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, part of the UN Women organization created in 2010, was presented in early March and has been the subject of negotiation since (so the draft I've found, grandly titled, "The elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls," may be substantially different now).
It contains a lot of vague, aspirational language. For instance, the proposal calls on UN member states to "promote and protect the human rights of all women and girls, including their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality free of coercion, discrimination and violence, their right to the highest standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, and their reproductive rights." And it also wants governments to "accelerate efforts to eliminate discrimination against women and girls and ensure women’s equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to education, health, social security, land, property, inheritance, employment, participation and decision-making in all spheres of life."
Founded in 2010 by a vote of the General Assembly, UN Women's task is to promote "gender equality and the empowerment of women." The first is something the Brotherhood is openly hostile too -- they reject the notion that men and women should be strictly equal. And they don't seem so hot on the "empowerment of women" since they have strongly patriarchal views that require wives to be subservient to husbands.
A lot of the UN ideas do directly conflict with the Muslim Brothers' religious views. Calling for women to have "equal enjoyment" of rights regarding property and inheritance, for instance, conflicts with the Brothers' interpretation of Islamic law, which requires women to inherit less than men. And the Brothers strongly believe that women should not be free to make decisions without interference from their adult male relatives or husbands.To be fair, the drafters of the UN document are trying to universalize their own cultural beliefs, what the Brothers termed an attempted "intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries."
But s the UN going to have any impact on the Brothers plans for Egyptian society (or an effect on places where the rights of women are far more restricted, like Saudi Arabia)? No. But the strength of the Brothers' reaction is a reminder that just because a country has free elections, or is trying to build a more democratic system, its leaders won't necessarily be interested in liberal values more broadly understood.
This is a latest salvo in a long-running culture war, one that Egypt's new leaders seem eager to enter. And they have friends. According to Reuters, Egypt has been joined by Russia, Iran and the Vatican in making strenuous objections to the proposal, finding common cause against the draft's call for better treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and access to abortion.