The Arab Spring is failing to deliver gains in women’s rights commensurate with women’s participation in the protests that led to the region’s transitions, a new report reveals.
The political changes sweeping across the region “present real opportunities for women to push for their rights although they also present risks of regression,” says a new report issued by the International Federation for Human Rights. “Women’s rights are the first to be sacrificed by politicians seeking to hold on to power and to appease the most conservative factions,” it warns.
Issued to mark International Women’s Day, the report gauges the status of women in the states impacted by the Arab Spring, highlighting the “obstacles that hinder their political participation” and calling for vigilance in the face of efforts to trawl back women’s rights.
“Women’s participation in public and political life, on an equal basis with men, is an essential condition for democracy and social justice, values at the heart of the Arab spring,” says Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH’s president.
Many women activists fear the resurgence of political Islam will undermine women’s rights and force them out of the political arena.
“It is true we are not afraid to speak our mind now and that is the most beautiful thing about the revolution,” said Asmaa Gamal, 20, a media student in Cairo who joined the protests in Tahrir Square. “But my fear is that our political and social system will become conservative, like Saudi Arabia.”
Rola Dashti, a former member of the Kuwaiti parliament, says that “women’s presence and participation in public life—specifically in politics, decision-making positions, and state affairs—moved from marginalization during repressive regimes to rejection with Islamist regimes.”
All of Kuwait’s female women parliamentarians lost their seats following an Islamist surge in recent elections.
“The promotion of moderate Islamism by Islamists in power is 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,” Dashti insists.
Libya’s new electoral law contains no quota for the representation of women in elected bodies, the FIDH report notes, while a Moroccan law adopted in October 2011 established a quota of only 15% and Tunisia’s 41-member government contains only 3 women.
“Demands for equality tend to be set aside, while the efforts of protesters focus on bringing down regimes and dismantling oppressive state institutions,” says Sophie Bessis, FIDH Deputy Secretary General. “Recent history painfully reminds us that the massive occupation of public space by women during revolutions, in no way guarantees their role in the political bodies of the regimes that follow.”
The rise of the Islamists will “first and foremost negatively affect the role of women” in the Arab world, says Kuwaiti women’s rights activist Ebtehal al-Khatib.
“When religious groups rise to positions of power… the first to be affected negatively are women… her issues and concerns and rights will be the first thing to be shelved” as Islamist-oriented parliaments take hold in the Middle East, she said.
“I view the Tunisian election as a gain for women,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative. “They have a substantial representation, and unlike in Egypt, they didn’t lose ground. Many of the women elected are from Ennahda [the country’s largest Islamist party].”
“Islamic governments can prove women have a voice in decision-making, although it remains to be seen how much they will do so,” she notes.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party dominates the newly-elected constituent assembly, recently affirmed that a woman cannot become president.
“Any law that agrees with sharia is welcome. Those that do not aren’t,” Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan told AFP.
For the Iraq Foundation’s Rend Al-Rahim, who served as the first ambassador to Washington in Iraq’s post-Saddam government “the retreat in women’s rights has more to do with the resurgence of patriarchal, narrowly conservative social mores embedded in ancient tribal customs than with religion. Sharia is only a convenient peg for the deeper instinct of male dominance.”
“Tunisia and Egypt have held elections, and the fear, particularly in Egypt, is that women have been left out,” Amber Maltbie, an expert in gender and politics told The Media Line.
Women start from a low baseline in the Middle East and North Arica, which has lagged by Europe and North America, and even Asia, in getting their foot into the doors of parliament and the presidential palace. The Inter-Parliamentary Union figures show that women account for just 11.3% of lawmakers on average in the Arab World, compared with 22.6% in Europe and America. In Asia, they occupy 18.3% and in sub-Saharan Africa 20.8%.
“While women played leading roles in the long years of resistance to dictatorships, the movements of the Arab Spring have given them unprecedented visibility, shattering stereotypes…And yet the risk is all too real that this burgeoning participation will be taken away,” the FIDH report notes:
We must remember the lessons of history. Hard won advances towards equal rights for women face persisting opposition and are all too easily swept away. The story of Algeria epitomizes the tragedy of women in revolutions: women fought for freedom from colonialism, but when independence was won they were deprived of their rights. In Yemen, in the 1960s women fought tyranny alongside men, but the change of regime reduced respect for their rights.
Is history repeating itself?
Najat Al-Dau, a Libyan rights activist, complains that the revised election law ignores women’s role in ousting Gaddafi. “I don’t think it’s fair to women,” Al-Dau says. “They’re trying to eliminate women from politics and revolution. But they cannot deny us what we did in the revolution.”
Activists fear that newly-empowered women now risk seeing gains clawed back.
“Being in the midst of the protests in Cairo felt really good and suddenly I felt proud to be an Egyptian,” said Iman Bibars, head of the Association for Development and Enhancement of Women in Egypt, a microfinance group that aids impoverished women.
“The revolution gave us a voice and we cannot hide that,” said Ms. Bibars: “But I think the product after the revolution is against women,” she added during an interview in Doha, where she took part last week in a debate on the Arab Spring’s impact on women.
“I was shocked the fundamentalists took over and I did not foresee a male gender constitution,” she said, referring to the parliamentary election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the 28 percent of seats that went to the more extreme Salafi parties.
“Women have been badly let down by the men they stood with during demonstrations that toppled tyrants in the Middle East and North Africa,” writes Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.
“Shot at, tortured, assaulted and detained — they were equals at the point of protest but now, as new governments extend their grip, we can see that, as citizens, women remain firmly in the second class.”
But 74 percent of the audience in a recent Doha debate on the impact of the Arab Spring on women rejected the idea that women would be worse off as a result of recent changes.
“Women made those revolutions which brought the so-called fundamentalists to power and they will be able to define and defend their rights and interests,” said Rabab El Mahdi, an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
“The harassment of women in the streets was a problem long before the revolution but it is now coming to light — so women are able to take their abusers to court,” she added.
Amnesty International asked Egypt’s political parties to confirm their commitment to basic human rights, such as freedom of expression and assembly, religious freedom, non-discrimination and gender equality, says Brown, who heads the group’s work on women’s rights and gender equality:
When elections finally came after so many years of dictatorship, The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party which won 235 seats — 47 per cent of the total – failed even to respond to Amnesty International’s request.
The Salafist Al-Nur party, which came second with 121 seats (24 per cent) declined to promote women’s rights or abolish the death penalty.
So 71% of the new parliament is unwilling to commit to promoting women’s rights and gender equality.
But there have been “some chinks of light,” Brown notes. “Tawakkol Karman of Yemen (right) was named as one of three women Nobel Laureates for peace, in an important, though, belated recognition of the role women have played in the protests dubbed the Arab Spring.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, asked a cross-section of female scholars, activists, business executives, journalists, politicians, and officials to comment on how women have fared in the Arab uprisings. The answers, especially from women living in the thick of it in Middle Eastern countries, are depressingly negative—and sometimes scathing.
One theme is that women played an essential role in the Arab world’s uprisings, only to be marginalized once transitions began.
Since women joined the Tahrir Square protests, “the train of change has not only left them behind, but has in fact turned against them,” says Moushira Khattab, a former Egyptian minister of family and population. “Dormant conservative value systems are being manipulated by a religious discourse that denies women their rights.”
“The ‘Arab Spring’ is not an accurate description” of what has occurred,” says Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist. After Iran’s revolution, “a dictator fell from power, but a religious tyranny took the place of democracy.” The uprisings will only be fulfilled, she argues, “when women achieve their rights.”
Interestingly, the few optimistic entries come from the Maghreb.
Omezzine Khélifa, a Tunisian woman who ran unsuccessfully for parliament with the Ettakatol Party, notes that Tunisia’s Personal Status Code is the most progressive in the Arab world. “Women realize that they have the most to lose if the transition does not go well and, as a result, have continued to be very active in the political process,” she writes.
Indeed, Khélifa says that through Tunisia’s progressive electoral law, women captured 27 percent of parliamentary seats in October’s election, and “women’s NGOs played a critical role in pushing the Tunisian government to lift key reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)—the first country in the region to do so.”
It is too early to tell how women’s rights will ultimately fare in the longer term.
Moroccan professor Souad Eddouada argues that the past year’s upheaval is producing “more grassroots youth activism whose equal access to social media tools is empowering individuals regardless of their gender or social class.”
FIDH and Karman’s Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO, are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.