NORTH AFRICA/ MIDDLE EASt: Has the Arab Spring Been a Disaster for Women?

Monday, November 12, 2012
the Huffington Post
Northern Africa
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

It's been almost two years since revolution swept across parts of the Arab world. Women organized and led demonstrations that toppled decades-old regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen -- and helped the rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Hopes were high that the Arab Spring would bring not just political change, but greater gender equality, too. But despite the major role they played in the uprisings, many activists worry that women are being left out of the political process.

They fear their fundamental rights are under threat as conservative and religious forces, gaining influence after the overthrow of repressive rulers, push for new constitutions to reflect their thinking.

Islamist-led governments are in place in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. Their parliaments are struggling to find a balance between secular forces and the rise of conservatism. Some worry that the persisting influence of Sharia risks limiting not only the rights of women but also freedom of expression and religion.

In Egypt, parliamentarians even discussed repealing a law that bans female genital mutilation. They proposed to lower the age of marriage and end women's right to divorce.

Whilst Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, promised in his campaign to "ensure women's access to all their rights," he added the strong qualifier that those rights must remain "consistent with the values of Islamic law, maintaining the balance between their duties and rights."

In 2010, before the Arab Spring took hold of Tahrir Square, 12 percent of candidates returned in Egyptian elections were female. In the first post-Arab Spring elections, just two percent of successful candidates were women. That's less than one-tenth of the global average number of successful parliamentary candidates who are women, which is 21.8 percent.

Meanwhile the authors of Tunisia's new constitution have caused outrage by defining women as "complementary" to men in Article 28 of the draft document -- officially rendering them second-class citizens.

Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have each passed electoral laws that ensure women's political participation -- but the results have been disappointing. The new cabinets in each country contain only two women apiece, which suggests institutions are reluctant to challenge cultures that often relegate women to traditional social roles.

It remains a sad fact that still not one Arab country is in the top 100 nations as ranked by gender equality.

So, has the Arab Spring been a disaster for women?

The answer, inevitably, is that it's too early to say. Transitions take time -- we're talking about countries that went from decades of autocracy to the possibility of democracy almost overnight.

But this is a time of opportunity and the premise of the Arab Spring was to provide access to the corridors of power for citizens that had for too long been locked out.

Activists say that excluding women from those corridors -- through official means or cultural practice -- sullies the memory of those who fought and many who died in the fight for freedom.

Much is being done at a grassroots level to make sure all voices are included in conversations about new constitutions, the rule of law and the role of religion in both legislation and society. A lot of that work is led by inspiring individuals.

• In Tunisia, Amira Yahyaoui founded Al Bawsala, an organization that helps people understand the role politics plays in their lives and how to work together to protect their rights.

• After consulting women all across Libya, Alaa Murabit is publishing a Libyan Women's Charter that lays out the specific needs and demands of Libyan women and which will be used to influence the writing of the new constitution.

• In Egypt, Dalia Ziada, named twice by Newsweek as one of the world's most influential and fearless women, continues to campaign in support of civil rights, religious freedom and tolerance.

Such efforts are paying dividends.

In Egypt, the committee charged with drafting Egypt's new constitution just last week dropped a controversial article seen as a threat to women's rights after outrage amongst women's rights activists like Dalia Ziada. The article had guaranteed gender equality, but only as long as it didn't conflict with Sharia law.

The three women mentioned above are just a few of the remarkable women who will speak at a major conference on women's rights in London in December organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune.

The conference will discuss many of the most pressing issues facing women around the world -- from trafficking and slavery to forced marriage and genital cutting -- with an eye to real solutions. The focus on action is key.

As Amira Yahyaoui told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview: "We cannot talk about the revolution in the past because it is not over. We are at a crossroads -- we can go towards democracy or back to dictatorship. We are still here. We still have the chance to change things.

"For women, the Arab Spring has been positive in one sense -- that is has made women see the importance of mobilization of fighting for our rights. We've learned that rights are not a gift -- we have to snatch them."