NORTH AFRICA/ MIDDLE EAST: Women Fight to Define the Arab Spring

Saturday, November 10, 2012
New York Times
Northern Africa
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

When Mabrouka M'barek is in the Tunisian capital these days, much of her time is spent writing a new constitution as an elected member of the National Constituent Assembly. It is a role the 32-year-old mother of two embraces with idealistic passion and more than a little amazement. Before President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in 2011, she never imagined herself a “founding mother,” as she referred to herself in a recent interview, of this country or any other.

Now Mrs. M'barek — a Tunisian-American whose constituents are Tunisians in the United States, Canada and Europe — is deep into one of the most important tasks of any new democracy. She is helping to write the document that will underpin the rights and responsibilities shared by the government and its citizens.

Men overwhelmingly dominate the Arab Spring countries, but women, enabled by advances in literacy and higher education, are increasingly asserting themselves. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, they have been on the front lines of revolution. These nations will not succeed unless women are fully incorporated into political and economic life.

Women in Arab countries have long lagged behind those in other countries in terms of opportunities and leadership positions in politics and business, and this has hurt the region's overall progress, according to reports by the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Development Program.

Some male leaders are acknowledging the need for change. In Libya last month, Mohamed Sowan boasted that his Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Development Party had the second-largest number of female members of any party in the Parliament and “looks forward to them having more participation.” In Tunisia, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the intellectual force of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that won the first free election there in 2011, said that in the next election he expects Ennahda's ticket to be half women and “we might have a larger percentage than in your Congress.” (In fact, Tunisia has already beaten the United States on that score.)

In Tunisia, the most Western and liberal of the Muslim countries, women won 49 of the 217 Constituent Assembly seats in last year's election. The overwhelming majority of them — 42 — were from Ennahda. In Libya, women hold 33 of 200 seats in Parliament.

But numbers are never the whole story. In Libya, women have been excluded from much of the serious decision-making, and the security challenges of a country awash in militias and guns often push their concerns to the back burner, said Alaa Murabit, founder of the Voice of Libyan Women, a nongovernmental activist group. As in much of the Arab world, there are also strong social pressures on women to forgo careers that are “too successful,” she said.

The Syrian National Council, the opposition group in exile, failed to name one woman when it chose its decision-making body at a conference in Qatar on Thursday. In Egypt, the streets remain so unsafe for women that vigilante groups have begun forming to mete out unofficial justice against those who harass or assault women. The Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, who was beaten in Cairo by security forces last year, goes so far as to charge that “Arab societies hate women.”

The new constitutions are crucial to protecting and expanding women's rights. Not surprisingly, there have been fierce political battles on just these issues. In Egypt, the 100-member assembly drafting a constitution is bickering over a handful of issues, including women's rights, as it races to meet a Dec. 12 deadline. On Tuesday, it eliminated a provision that would have tied some aspects of women's rights, like marriage and inheritance, more firmly to Shariah, or Islamic law. But Egyptian Salafists, ultraconservatives who want to segregate the sexes and ensure that women are veiled, are pushing back. The assembly plans a vote on the constitution this month.

Even in Tunisia, where secularists have a stronger voice and Ennahda has espoused more temperate views than most Islamist parties, women had to take to the streets in protest over efforts by some of the more conservative assembly members to dilute protections for women contained in a 1956 law. The Islamists wanted language in the constitution to say that the roles of men and women are “complementary.” The secularists, fearful of ceding any ground, insisted that men and women should have “the same rights and duties” and added an assurance that the state will guarantee women's rights. Ennahda leaders say that the final document will unambiguously endorse gender equality and universal rights. But until the constitution is formally adopted, no one can be sure.

Still, the Arab Spring has allowed Muslim girls and women to dream big dreams. “For young girls to now tell me they want to be the future president, minister of defense, these are things I never imagined,” Ms. Murabit wrote in an e-mail. But enshrining rights in a constitution and making sure they are carried out are big challenges.

“This is a critical time,” said Mrs. M'barek. “There are two steps in a revolution: You break it and then you build something new. That's the hardest.”