By Mara Alioto, Juris Doctor Candidate (2015), Northwestern University School of Law
While many Egyptians are of the opinion that “[a]nimal rights are of no concern to [them] until human rights are abided by,” sexual harassers, serial killers and child abusers all often start as animal offenders. Professor Stilt’s talk highlights the evolution of the role of animal rights in the Egyptian constitution.
Focusing on animal law in the Egyptian constitution, Northwestern Law Professor Kristen Stiltmerged her interests in Islamic law and society and her activist interests in animal law in her talk “Constitutionalizing Animals,” given at the American Bar Foundation on April 9. Her talk focused on Article 45 of the 2014 Egyptian constitution: Professor Stilt translated al-rifq bi-l-hayawanliterally as “kind treatment of animals,” and noted that the phrase has deep roots in the Islamic tradition.
Even though animal rights are gaining increasing attention worldwide, few countries provide for protections for animals in their constitutions. Egypt is a surprising new member of this tiny club because it is one of the worst countries in the world for animal welfare. Millions of feral dogs and cats are on the streets, and the government kills them with poison or by shooting them, often causing slow and painful deaths. At Cairo University’s Veterinary school, the animals used to train the students are treated cruelly. In the cities, children set cats’ tails on fire as a game and throw puppies in the Nile to drown. Even the zoos are not safe havens for animals. At the Giza Zoo, animals are beaten and chained and suffer from malnutrition and disease. Work animals, such as horses and donkeys, work in inhumane conditions and are often worked to death or starved.
The clause on animal protection was included as the result of activist groups in Egypt, not because the drafters came up with it on their own. The animal rights activists had to decide how much emphasis to put on Islamic law and how much to focus on arguments based on international standards. In Islamic law, the hadith has much more to say about animals than the Quran. In the hadith, there are provisions that call for the protection and kind treatment of animals, but there are also provisions that restrict dog ownership and indicate that dogs are impure and disfavored. Dog ownership is seen by some as a “western” or “non-Muslim” tradition that is not permissible. On the other hand, cats are given more protections in the Hadith.
Activists approached the Salafist party during the drafting of the 2012 constitution. The proposed article and the arguments supporting it were based mainly on Islamic law, especially the Quran. However, when the 2012 constitution went into force, there was nothing on animal rights.
Luckily for the animal activists, the 2012 constitution did not last for very long. The new constitution drafting committee was made up of a very different group than the previous committee since the Muslim Brotherhood was excluded from the drafting process. Dina Zulficar and her activist group submitted their proposed article to the new committee, but heard nothing. However, another animal activist, Amina Abaza, prepared a proposed article focusing on international agreements instead of Islamic law. Her proposed article said “[t]he state is required to adhere to all of the international agreements and conventions that it has ratified regarding al-rifq bi-l-hayawan [kindness to animals] as part of achieving rights for animals, and the citizens of Egypt are also required to adhere to them.” While Abaza in her advocacy for animals previously relied on the same Islamic arguments that Dina Zulficar and her group relied on, Abaza decided to rely on different arguments. She focused on international standards as well as the connection between animal abuse and human abuse.
While the committee reacted favorably to Abaza’s proposal, the provision that was actually included in Article 45 of the constitution was not as strong as the various proposals submitted by the activists. The committee also relied on the Islamic phrasing of “kindness to animals” in the final version. By doing so, the drafting committee might have been guarding against accusations of prioritizing frivolous or western concerns.