A year ago, women were front and centre in the Arab Spring uprisings – acting as advocates, smuggling ammunition to rebels, being beaten by police alongside men and caring for the wounded. But now they are in danger of being shunted aside by conservative male leaders such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who threaten to roll back the few rights women enjoy.
Some believe that the new Islamists can reconcile themselves with equal rights for women, under liberal interpretations of sharia law. “Democracy is a process and it can't happen overnight,” says Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Islamic-law scholar and prominent Iranian-born activist, speaking from London. “But feminism is a quest for justice, and Islam is also about justice.”
Others are more skeptical: In a recent speech in Washington, former Kuwaiti member of parliament Rola Dashti said the Islamists' claims of moderation are “nothing more than a hidden agenda of radical and extremist ideologies when it comes to social issues and citizens' rights, especially as it concerns women.”
The old despotic regimes were more secular, and often passed some progressive laws in such areas as marriage, divorce and inheritance, at least partly to appease Western governments. Those measures are now tainted by association, linked to both loose morals and Western colonialism.
“The problem is not with Islam,” Dr. Mir-Hosseini says. “It is with an undemocratic and patriarchal culture.”
In Egypt, a woman can seek a divorce without her husband's permission. Today, that is often called “Suzanne Mubarak's law,” in reference to the former president's wife, who pushed for reforms. At least one newly elected MP has promised to repeal it.
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco are some of the countries that allow men to marry up to four wives, sometimes more. Tunisia and Egypt are among those who banned it long ago. In Libya, polygamy was rarely practised under Moammar Gadhafi, but the new interim Libyan leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, announced in October that polygamy would be allowed, dismaying women's groups but perhaps trying to appeal to the pious fighters who helped to oust the Gadhafi regime.
In Yemen, they are sometimes called the “brides of death”: girls as young as 10, forced to marry men twice their age or older. Nearly half the girls in the country are married before they turn 18, the highest rate in the Arab world, according to United Nations figures. Tawakul Karman, the 2011 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has campaigned to raise the minimum age of marriage to 17, but ultraconservatives have blocked a bill in Parliament.
Ms. Karman, 33, embodies the reforming spirit of the Arab uprisings – she led the first student protests calling for the resignation of Yemen's president and her arrest triggered mass demonstrations – but also their complexities, as she is a member of a religiously based party, Islah. One of its members, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, is a former Osama bin Laden adviser.
Because sharia law does not explicitly state a minimum age of marriage, attitudes vary widely: Moroccan women fought for 18 and won in 2004; meanwhile, the Islamist party in Bahrain opposed an effort to set the minimum age at 15.
The number of women going to college or university in Arab nations is growing. Perhaps surprisingly, the Gulf states head the pack: In Saudi Arabia, which generally imposes harsh restrictions on women's lives, 60 per cent of all college graduates are women. Sheika Moza bint Nasser, the wife of the ruling emir of Qatar, promotes education, and about 70 per cent of university students there are women. In Tunisia, women account for 62 per cent of university-degree holders.
However, this pattern of younger women being much more highly educated than their mothers' generation is not translating into careers: According to UN figures, only 25 per cent of Arab women work outside the home.
In Egypt, 28-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz helped to spark the demonstrations last year by posting videos on YouTube challenging the public to march on the streets. But the military rulers who followed made clear their view of women in the public sphere by abandoning the quotas that had guaranteed women 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament. After the elections this winter, only nine women now sit in the new, 498-seat lower house of Egypt's Parliament.
Over all, the proportion of female representatives in parliaments is just 10 per cent in all Arab countries, according to the UN, but in many countries women are pushing for reserved places in the legislatures.
Kuwait no longer has any female MPs – all four lost their seats in February when religious conservatives came to dominate Parliament. But Tunisia presents a brighter, more complicated picture: A new law requires that women and men must feature equally on party candidate lists, which led to 49 women being elected to the 217-member constituent assembly. Most were from al-Nahda, the moderate Islamist party.
Many reformers are concerned that new national constitutions in the Arab world will be used to push narrow interpretations of sharia law. In Egypt, no women have been appointed to the council drafting the constitution. Meanwhile in Libya, a women's alliance has lobbied successfully to guarantee women at least 10 per cent of the seats in the assembly that will draft a constitution later this year – but it has already been decided that it will be based on sharia.
In Tunisia, hard-line Salafists took to the streets to demand that sharia be the sole basis of the new constitution, but the moderate-Islamist government ruled it out last month.
The possibility is still worrying, Tunisia-based activist Omezzine Khelifa says. “Today, more than one year after the revolution, lots of women's hopes of equality have disappeared,” she says. “Debates taking place on whether sharia should be the unique source of Tunisian law, or one among many, showed how far we could be from comprehensive and true equality between men and women.”