Maghreb women have made many strides towards improved rights, but governments and social pressure continue to stand in their way. This was the tone taken at a two-day forum that ended Saturday (April 27th) in Casablanca.
The event was organised by the Democratic League for Women's Rights (FLDDF) and brought together women's movements and lawyers from across the Maghreb.
FLDDF chairwoman Fouzia Assouli opened the forum with a summary of women's struggles and progress in Morocco. She also celebrated the unique achievements of women's movements under the Moroccan constitution, calling them unique in the Arab world, but said that the margin of poverty women suffer in Morocco had grown.
"This debate is intended to acquaint us with women's status in the countries of the Arab Spring," Assouli told Magharebia on the side-lines of the meeting. "There were many significant shifts that led to conservative governments, and unfortunately women found themselves losing some of their achievements just when their participation in Arab movements was being effective."
Amal Karami, a Tunisian researcher in comparative religion, used the term "Arab Movement" in her remarks instead of "Arab Spring", claiming that she had not seen an Arab Spring. "There is a huge clash in the Tunisian street between the modern and salafist currents," she said.
According to Karami there were 600 cases of customary marriages in Tunisian universities and there were Tunisian women ready to volunteer to go to Syria to marry mujahedeen. "Believe it or not, this is the situation in Tunisia today," she said.
In Tunisia there is not just one discourse, she added. "There are numerous discourses moving in the direction of the Islamisation of the state. There are attempts to destroy the achievements women have made over decades. The Ennahda party aims at eliminating fifty years of accomplishments from our history under the pretext of a historic conflict between Rachid Ghannouchi and Habib Bourguiba."
It is women who pay the price, she said, "under the name of returning to an Islamic identity and restoring family values, which is a Middle Eastern Wahhabist plan that we will confront."
Accounts from Libya were even more pessimistic.
"Unfortunately, the situation for women in Libya has become disastrous," researcher Sahar Madiha al-Naas told Magharebia. "In spite of the failure of religious movements in elections, it has spread throughout society and dominated daily life."
"There are plans to oust Libyan women, marginalise them and dwarf their role. This is unfortunate because women's aspirations to improve their tragic situation were great under the former regime," al-Naas said. "They were looking forward to greater opportunities, but instead they are losing the ones they had before."
To draw an everyday picture of women's struggles in Libya, al-Naas added: "Today, women are stopped in the street and humiliated for not wearing the hijab. This 'Taliban scenario' is repeated in Libya every day. My presence here in this international forum is to alarm the world about the situation of Libyan women and to co-operate with sisters in Morocco to develop a strategy for progress and confronting extremist religious discourse."
Egyptian lawyer Islam al-Bahiri discussed the difficult situation women face under the Muslim Brotherhood, saying: "They resorted to deception to convince Egyptian people to vote for them. During their campaigns, they said that those who vote for them vote for God and those who vote for others vote for the enemies of God. At that time, I wrote a column in which I said we would not vote for God because He did not participate in the elections."
The first thing done to curb women's accomplishments, al-Bahiri said, was abolition of laws related to women's rights, including a ban of female genital mutilation.
The Brotherhood declared that any girl who refused to be circumcised was adulterous. According to them, "She must be forced to be circumcised to protect the dignity of her family and preserve her chastity, so she will not fall in vice," al-Bahiri concluded.