MIDDLE EAST: Are the Mideast Revolutions Bad for Women's Rights?

Sunday, February 20, 2011
The Washington Post
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

On Friday, Egyptians again gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, this time in a victory celebration, one week after their revolution unseated President Hosni Mubarak. Tunisians have also been sampling new freedoms of speech and press along a boulevard that is no longer a war zone. But even as the exultation lingers, women in both countries have launched new protests. They want to make sure that democracy does not erode their rights.

In Tunisia, several hundred women have already taken to the streets to voice their concern about what an Islamic revival, should it come, could mean for them. In Egypt, women's rights activists immediately mounted a petition drive when the committee named to draft a new constitution included not a single woman (although many noted female Egyptian lawyers could easily serve on that committee).

In both countries, there is popular support for a broader establishment of sharia, or Islamic law, developed from the Koran and religious writings. Of course, there is no single sharia; interpretations vary throughout the Middle East and are subject to change. Morocco, for example, sets the legal age of female marriage at 18, based on its more progressive version of sharia, whereas in Saudi Arabia girls as young as 8 are married to much older men, based on its version. As new leaders in the region grapple with how to blend some version of sharia with some version of democracy, women's rights will become a central element of the debate.

The laws affecting women in Tunisia, and to some extent in Egypt, are among the most progressive in the Middle East, so the potential for backsliding in those countries is real. And women in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Iraq, where the spreading unrest has been met with government force, have also struggled for their rights and likewise have reason to be concerned if their governments fall or start handing out concessions.

Tunisia, in particular, has been a bastion of women's rights in a region known for the opposite. Shortly after independence in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba, the country's secular authoritarian leader, pushed through a Personal Status Code which was remarkably liberal for its time. It granted women equal divorce rights to men, abolished polygamy, set minimum marriage ages, allowed access to birth control and even some access to abortion. Bourguiba modeled himself on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder who force-marched his country into the modern age through a painful process of secularization - "for the people, despite the people," as he once quipped.

The result is that Tunisian women today enjoy relatively high literacy and have achieved broad gains in law, medicine, business, academia and media.

Islam, meanwhile, has been tightly regulated; in Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's police state, it was not uncommon for the authorities to question a person for switching mosques or attending one more than once a week. Popular Islamist leaders were arrested and exiled. Still, many women in Tunisia wear the headscarf despite its ban in public places. Enforced secularism never succeeded in stamping out religiosity.

Democracy will inevitably bring Islamist groups into Tunisia's political mainstream. A few conservative voices have already made rumblings about revising aspects of the Personal Status Code, whereas moderate Islamists are quick to express support for women's rights and adherence to the current code. Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the formerly banned Islamist party Nahda, was once critical of the Personal Status Code and the country's anti-polygamy laws on religious grounds, but by the late 1980s he had come to terms with it. He recently returned to Tunisia after exile in London and has again reaffirmed his support for women's rights. The question is whether Ghannouchi's brand of moderate Islamism will carry the day in Tunisia.

In Egypt, democracy will also create important openings for Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. In a 2007 Gallup survey, 64 percent of Egyptians polled said that sharia should be the only source of law in the country; an additional 24 percent said it should be a source of legislation. (There was little variation by gender.)

Still, Egyptians' desire for sharia is balanced by a strong demand for modernization and a distaste for theocracy. Women's rights will be a litmus test for the new government - a sign of where the country is headed. The Muslim Brotherhood unleashed a sea of controversy in 2007 when it released its party platform excluding women (and non-Muslims) from the presidency, and calling for a group of Islamic scholars to review and veto legislation that does not conform to religious rules. These conservative positions confirmed critics' worst fears of the Brotherhood, and led to some soul-searching within the organization itself, especially among younger members who disagreed with the hard-line positions of their elders.

So far, no women have been named to the small panel revising Egypt's constitution; hence the petition to the ruling Army Council. "We collected more than 11,000 signatures in a few days," Iman Bibars, a prominent women's rights activist in Cairo, told me by phone. "That's a huge number in such a short amount of time." Bibars is sanguine about prospects for women in the new Egypt, although realistic too. "We will have to fight for our rights," she said. "It will be tough, and require lobbying, but that's what democracy is all about."

The constitutional reform process presents challenges for women's rights. Some role for sharia is inevitable in the new Egyptian constitution, as the existing one already establishes Islamic law as the main source of legislation. The real issue is what kind of Islam will exert most influence.

The rise of Salafism, a particularly conservative form of the faith propagated by Saudi Arabia, should worry Egyptian women's groups. In recent years, tensions between secularists and Salafis have been rising, with Salafis calling for full veiling of women and gender segregation in universities. The Salafis' following is evident in the rising number of Egyptian women wearing the niqab, the face-covering veil, long black abayas and even gloves on their hands to avoid physical contact with men.

Wearing the veil has become popular in Tunisia and Egypt for a variety of reasons, including as an expression of religious identity, conforming to social pressures and as a statement against the secular authoritarianism of the government. (The irony is that Egypt is the birthplace of Arab feminism, which in the first half of the 20th century put much energy into unveiling women.)

With Hosni Mubarak gone, activists will now have to contend with hard-core politics in a way that has been missing from Egypt's Potemkin parliament. Controversial legislation, like the equal right to divorce that was passed in 2000, will come under pressure from Islamist lawmakers who fiercely opposed the bill. (Tunisia is the only other Arab country that grants women the right.) Women's groups can no longer fall back upon a sympathetic Mubarak regime, which often sided with their cause.

In a more fluid democratic system, women's groups in Tunisia and Egypt will have to forge alliances with moderate religious leaders who promote progressive interpretations of sharia. Women's groups in countries such as Morocco, Jordan and, to some extent, Iran have succeeded in doing so, harnessing critical support on legislation affecting their rights.

If a brave new world of electoral politics does emerge, women's rights activists will have to be savvy - commanding international support without raising fears of undue Western influence. When women in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have faced disastrous rollbacks of their rights in the name of religion, they have called in the international media and shamed their governments into backing down.

Tunisian and Egyptian activists should know that women's rights often become bargaining chips for some other agenda. In Iraq, the American-appointed Governing Council wasted no time in trying to rescind the Baathists' progressive family law and replace it with religious law. Only a backlash from women's groups, and a U.S. veto, prevented the move. In the months ahead, women in Tunisia and Egypt must be ready to face similar watershed moments.