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Women being educated on referendum in Egypt

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Summary of a story from npr.org March 18, 2011

Today’s referendum in Egypt offers men and women the chance to vote on amending the constitution.

But many uneducated, rural, working-class Egyptians lack basic knowledge about it, the first ‘unrigged’ vote in Egypt for decades.

An NGO in El Minya, birthplace of the former First Lady of Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak called The Better Life Association, is trying to educate primarily poor, working class voters who have no time to study the issues.

But instead of talking to the men, it’s targeting the women who will share what they learn with their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons as well as voting themselves.

The women come to classes, specially arranged by the Better Life Association, and learn about concepts such as majority rule, which hasn’t mattered much in Egypt for generations.

They wear their best clothes to class – Muslims with their heads covered, Christians uncovered – and pay close attention to the details of the proposed amendments.

Asked what a referendum is, one student says, “In elections we vote for people. In a referendum, we vote for ideas.”

The organization has been encouraging women to participate in politics for some time , even before the fall of Mubarak, but as programme coordinator Christeen Maher, 25, explains:

“Before, we were just talking about the government without labeling it a dictatorship…[but] it was a democracy in name only.

“We also stress the idea that if we don’t vote, we’re creating another dictator. And if we do, we get what we deserve this time,” she says, laughing.

But she knows democracy will take more than voting.

The NGO also tries to educate citizens about corruption and the part that is played by everyone who keeps silent. Maher explains that “paying bribes to get through our daily lives just encouraged more corruption.”

In the learning center, the women meet with local politicians, most of whom belonged to Mubarak’s ruling party.

The ruling party, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood want Egyptians to vote “yes” on the constitutional changes. They limit the president’s term of office but leave many powers of the state in place.

Fatima, 22, says she wants bigger change: a new constitution. She says she will vote against the proposed changes after studying them here.

The women say they’ll go home and tell their husbands what they have learned, but they don’t have much time.

The army’s swift voting timetable is making it harder to organize opposition and this class on the constitution only ended yesterday. The referendum is taking place today across all Egypt.

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