NORTH AFRICA/ MIDDLE EAST: Arab Spring reforms still leaving women out in the cold

Monday, September 24, 2012
USA Today
Northern Africa
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

Nawal Al Saadawi has been at the lead of the fight for rights for women for decades, and like many here was exhilarated when women and men united in Tahrir Square to lead protests against dictator Hosni Mubarak.

But more than a year after Mubarak's ouster, not much has changed for women, she laments.

"Things didn't improve for women, and we are going backward," said Nawal, 81, an author and activist.

Much of the Arab world has typically not been kind to the emancipation of women, who have little political power in most Arab states and often face legal systems weighted against them. This has been true under both secular states like Egypt and Islamic states like Iran.

The Arab Spring uprisings that have ousted dictators and ushered in democratic reforms such as free elections also gave some women hope that they, too, would see an end to discrimination.

New governments are forming in the Arab world to write constitutions and pass laws as the basis for new political systems and societies. Liberal activists are pushing their new political leaders to enshrine in law a view of women's rights that reflects standards of gender equality found in the West.

But many activists see a possible rollback of gains for women won over the past decades as women are sidelined from power and Islamists, many elected with the votes of women, emerge politically.

"There is a trend in the region that women's rights could go backward," said Stephanie Willman Bordat, director of Global Rights in Morocco, which advocates for human rights.

Anti-government uprisings that ushered in power shifts began in December 2010 when protesters forced out Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in

Tunisia. Long considered among the most liberal of the Arab states, the nation hit milestones for women last year when it adopted a gender-parity law that required equal participation in constituent assembly elections.

Tunisia later lifted reservations to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women a sort of bill rights for women that Tunisia, like other Arab states, previously failed to apply in full.

Despite these reforms, last month women rallied in the streets against what they believe is a threat to their status a change in the draft of the nation's new constitution that would deem women "complementary to men." The leading Islamist Ennahda party vowed to uphold women's rights and not enforce hardline Islamic laws, but activists are skeptical.

"We have to be vigilant and be aware of the danger of a possible backlash," said Houda Zaibi Belhassen, vice-president of the League of Tunisian Women Voters.

In Egypt, women have been sidelined from power when only men were appointed to draft an interim constitution after the military council took control last year. The 64-seat quota for women's representation in parliament was abolished, and activists say no effort is made by any party liberal groups included to prioritize women's issues.

"We struggle first to have a vision for the future and second to ensure that women's rights are an essential part of human rights," said Nehad Abu El Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.

Activists say the state fails to protect women from sexual harassment. Women protesting for expanded rights have been sexually assaulted by authorities who in March 2011 tested some women for virginity to defend the army against rape claims. Rights groups say no one has been charged in such cases.

The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women said the primary focus now is maintaining existing laws that benefit women, such as opposing calls to lower the legal age of marriage to below 18.

But some say women will weather the transitions and surface stronger.

"First and foremost is economics: Tunisia, Egypt and even oil-rich Libya simply cannot afford to disempower half their population," wrote Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, in a report for consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Another reason for optimism is that the Arab revolutions prompted women to mobilize themselves for a cause. Activists are taking to the streets and the airwaves and using social media to make themselves heard, Coleman wrote.

"Before the revolution we were silent," said Rabat Abdel Halim, 27, riding a Cairo metro car solely for women. "Now we have the right to say our opinions, and we can fight if we don't agree with things."

But challenges persist.

In Morocco, the suicide of 16-year-old Amina Filali in March provoked protests against antiquated legislation that allows men who rape or have sex with minors to avoid prosecution by wedding their victims. Filali's family said she killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist, who continued to abuse her.

But it doesn't seem the government will pass a long-promised "violence against women" law and the leading Islamist party indicated it is not on board with eliminating marriage of minors or polygamy, said Bordat.

"The positive flipside is the new constitution," Bordat said, which was adopted in July 2011 in response to protests. "It's going to be a back-and-forth tug of war struggle between the current Islamist government initiatives that could (have a conservative impact on) women and the new tools in the constitution that could push back."

Libyan women are hopeful that a new constitution there will protect women, who participated in the protest movement against deceased former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

"There are some slight changes in the perception of women in terms of politics and public life, which could help in the long run," said Alaa Mubarit, 22, founder of The Voice Of Libyan Women, which promotes women's political participation.

Activists say that however long the fight, it is a crucial one.

"It is a matter of human rights for everyone, for equality," said Iman Bibars, chair of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women in Egypt. "It's a matter of: Are you being treated as an equal or not because we were all in Tahrir."