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Women's rights top agenda as Egyptians vote on draft constitution

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A box full of ballots is carried near Egyptian soldiers standing guard outside a school in Cairo that will be used as a polling station on Tuesday and Wednesday.

CAIRO - Egyptians were voting in a referendum on the country’s draft constitution on Tuesday and Wednesday, a document that would enshrine unprecedented gender equality for women.

Since the so-called Arab Spring shook Egypt and the region to its foundations in 2010, the roles and rights of women in the Middle East’s most populous country have been under the spotlight.  

Throughout the revolution that unseated the government of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and led to the election of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi -- who was deposed in a military coup last year -- the country has debated rampant sexual harassment, and whether an Islamist government protects or endangers women.

The referendum, the military-backed government’s first electoral test since the Morsi’s ouster in July, has also come under fire for restricting personal freedoms of all Egyptians. For example, it states that citizens who have attacked the military in any way can be tried in military court, and would allow forced prison labor and require government permission for demonstrations.

A number of political parties, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, have called for a boycott of the referendum.

Mohamed Muslemany / NBC News

Hanaa Safwat, a 26-year-old artist, is disillusioned by the political process in Egypt and does not plan on voting in the referendum.

Artist Hanaa Safwat participated in demonstrations to overthrow Mubarak three years ago but told NBC News she is now disillusioned.

“I don’t think it’s worth my effort to drive and put any effort into voting ‘no,’ which would have been the other option,” the 26-year-old said.

“The referendum is stained in innocent people’s blood. It has been built on the dead bodies of 800 people in  Rabaa al-Adawiya,” Safwat said, referring to last summer's crackdown on Morsi supporters that led to the deaths of hundreds of Islamist demonstrators. 

The referendum and draft constitution do not echo the aims of those who unseated Mubarak in 2011, she said.

“People asked for economic equality, freedom, dignity [when they overthrew Mubarak]. I don’t think the constitution in the way it’s been written…guarantees any of that,” she said.

“It reflects the desires of the June 30 coup," Safwat said, referring to the military's ouster of Morsi.

In a case of unlikely bedfellows, a conservative housewife in her 50s is similarly fed-up. The older woman, who adheres to a strict interpretation Islam and dresses in all-enveloping black robes and scarves, agreed to speak but only on condition of anonymity because she fears retribution.  

Asked if she was planning to vote, she replied: “Of course not! I don’t accept anything around this."

She also participated in the movement to overthrow Mubarak but has been disappointed by the turn of events.

“I am not asking for Morsi, I am asking for democracy.  If you want to come, you have to come through elections,” she said.

As an Islamist, she feels maligned under the current regime.

“We have no place in this society really. If you give me the choice, I would want to leave Egypt. You don’t feel free here. If you say your opinion, you go to prison…. What is this?!”

On the other hand, Afaf Marie, the director of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, supports the referendum.

“I am definitely going to vote and I am going to vote ‘yes',” said Marie. “This is going to be the first constitution in Egypt’s history that is recognizing women’s rights.”

Marie praised the provisions in the proposed constitution that protect women.

“An article says the state should ensure protection of women from all violence. That means family violence, state violence, street violence, and protection from sexual harassment at home, in the street in public places and transportation.”

With two days of voting, and an estimated 160,000 soldiers and 200,000 policemen expected to deploy across the country to guard polling stations, according to The Associated Press, some allege a culture of intimidation will force a “yes” vote.

A “yes” vote would pave the way for new presidential and parliamentary elections. 

NBC News' F. Brinley Bruton contributed to this report. 

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