Political forces in the Arab world are gearing up for a “guerrilla battle between Islamists and women,” says a leading analyst.
That may seem unlikely in a region where women have fewer political rights and economic opportunities. While East Asia has the highest rate of women starting and running businesses, the lowest is in the Arab world, the Arab International Women’s Forum heard this week.
But a new generation of Arab women is demanding both political rights and socio-economic empowerment, from the right to drive and take leadership in conservative Islamist parties to starting enterprises and forming labor unions, according to a must-read Financial Times survey of Women in the Arab Awakening.
“It was not the image the world was accustomed to. Long perceived as second-class citizens in their own countries, Arab women were suddenly propelled to the forefront of social activism in the Arab Awakening that has swept the region over the past 16 months,” writes Roula Khalaf.
Arab women’s critical contribution received global recognition with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Yemen’s Tawakul Karman,* but less celebrated activists laid the ground for recent transitions.
“Even before a young Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire and sparked a wave of uprisings across north Africa and the Middle East, Azza Maghur (left) was a thorn in the side of the regime of Col Muammer Gaddafi,” writes Borzou Daragahi:
Maghur was long a daring human rights activist, by Libyan standards. Late in 2010, she presented a lecture in Tripoli and published an article in a newspaper about what she called “shadow civil society”, the constellation of Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and blogs that sprang up in repressive countries.
Her activism led to an interrogation by Libya’s feared intelligence services.
“There were six men,” she recalls. “Gaddafi told them to summon me because he hated civil society. This phrase was banned in Gaddafi’s Libya.”
Libya’s transition has empowered illiberal groups that may yet reverse fragile, tentative gains for women’s rights and democracy, she fears.
“There are bad indications,” she says. “But I think when we talk about democratization, you cannot predict what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. You have to work hard for democracy.”
Libya’s transition is just one indication that “as the region stumbles towards a new political order, translating the empowerment of women into long-term social, political and economic gains will be a struggle,” Khalaf warns. “In some cases, protecting the rights won in recent years could prove difficult.”
As Nehad Abul Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, says: “Egyptian women today are more aware, stronger and more involved – like all Egyptians they are no longer afraid to raise their voices…..But on a policy makers’ level, it’s different – the revolution is an orphan, it’s blind, there is no vision or leadership on women’s rights.”
With Islamist groups in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt calling for the reform of personal status codes that enshrine women’s rights, “the spirit of solidarity and equality forged at a time of historic change is giving way to more traditional political manoeuvring and a return to deeply entrenched patriarchal customs,” Khalaf notes.
With Islamist parties making significant political gains and ultraconservative Salafi groups calling for the strict implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, the region seems set for a major showdown over women’s rights.
There will undoubtedly be a “guerrilla battle between Islamists and women”, predicts Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamist movements at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In hardline Islamist states like Saudi Arabia, individual women activists lack the support structures of a wider movement.
“The movement did not catch on because Saudi women still have so much fear of being visible,” says Hala al-Dosari, an activist and writer. “Activists don’t want to reveal their identity because the social and tribal setting is very restrictive. You’re not an individual, you’re part of a collective society where you can’t represent the voice of dissidents or you’ll be disowned.”
But the issue is more complex than a conflict between women’s rights and political Islam, says Khalaf.
“ The gains women want to safeguard were part of a top-down approach, often promoted by the first ladies of autocratic rulers whose primary objective was to improve their husbands’ image,” as in the case of Egypt’s “Suzanne’s laws,” initiated by then first lady Suzanne Mubarak.
“Women’s rights when granted in a top-down fashion are insecure,” says Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East. Far more secure, she argues, are rights achieved through the reinterpretation of Islamic texts that give legitimacy to women’s empowerment.
“You need a national conversation about what is sharia,” says Ms Coleman. “This is a battle within Islam. It is playing out today in all debates and women are the most obvious debate.”
Morocco’s mudawana – or personal status code – may provide a model for a more credible strategy, as it resulted from both top-down initiative and bottom up mobilization.
“If Islamist parties want to have legitimacy, they must not forget that the people who took to the streets in the region did not go out to demand sharia law, but human rights and good governance, says Fouzia Assouli, president of Morocco’s Democratic League for Women’s Rights. “ If they forget that, they too will be wiped away by history.”
The Syrian opposition has thrown up no charismatic leaders like Karman, so “it is fitting that one of its most high-profile figures should be the softly-spoken human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh (right)” writes Fielding-Smith:
With an air of quiet stoicism beyond her years, Ms Zeitouneh, 35, knew before the revolution started what it was to persevere in holding the state to account. She worked on behalf of political prisoners and, in 2002, was told she could no longer leave the country.
Many of her fellow activists have been arrested, tortured or killed.
“All those activists, some of whom we know and others that we don’t, are creating a new history for their country and their region,” she wrote in an open letter to Anna Politkovskaya, the murdered Russian journalist, after receiving an award in her name from the British human rights group RAW in WAR (Reach All Women In War).
“They are creating a homeland and a future from the ashes of the violence carried out by one of the most notorious authoritarian regimes in the world.” In December, she also received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Award for Freedom of Thought.
Zeitouneh is assumed to be in hiding in Syria, representing a new generation of rights monitors that, according to Wissam Tarif, a researcher with the Avaaz campaign group, has sprung up “like mushrooms”.
“Prominent activists in the past who were willing to take the risk were very few – you knew them,” he says. “Now there are so many. They don’t necessarily have the big names or the diplomat and journalist networks, but they have access to affected communities.”
With only 25% of Arab women actively employed in the labor market, groups like the Education for Employment network are making a difference:
Strengthening the rights of women in the informal economy would be one way to improve their economic empowerment, analysts say. There is also a need to give women better access to credit to try to boost entrepreneurialism.
But improving structural conditions to make existing employment opportunities more attractive to women is also seen as vital, whether it is creating safe, affordable public transport or reforming workplace regulations.
“We have started a labour rights programme specifically for the needs of women, because employers were making them work overtime, and that particularly affects women,” Ms Di Florio of EFE says.
“The one-man tyrannies have been toppled. But a moment in Tunisia just a few weeks ago – when a lone woman named Khaoula Rachidi (left) dared confront an Islamic activist (see video above) – crystallised the struggle that may shape the Arab world for years to come, while illustrating women’s power,” writes Borzou Daragahi:
During a raucous demonstration on March 7 by ultraconservative Islamist activists at the university in Manouba, a burly, bearded Salafist climbs to the top of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities building and begins ripping down the country’s red and white flag. He tries to replace it with a black shahada banner sometimes associated with al-Qaeda.
A group of students gasps in dismay at the gesture, some of them filming it with their mobile phone cameras or chanting slogans.
Suddenly, a woman, who was later identified as Ms Rachidi, clambers up to the rooftop. The master’s degree student of French rushes over to the man and demands that he stop. He grabs her and hurls her to the ground, but she bounces back without pause.
At this point other students, inspired by Ms Rachidi, climb the rooftop and stop the Salafist.
But Islamists are not the only threat to women’s rights and democracy, say activists.
“I don’t share the Islamophobia,” says Sally Toma, a Coptic Christian activist in the Egyptian Social Democratic party. “Many women have been liberated by taking part in the revolution, including those who wear Islamic headscarves and even the niqab [face veil].
“We are pushing and our day will come. No one will be able to force Egyptian women to do anything against their will. We have broken the barrier of caring what people will say if we go out on the street.”
She also points out that it is not just the Islamists who marginalise women, and that parties which bill themselves as modernist and progressive fielded very few women in the parliamentary election.
“Women here are fighting against the military and against a society that is patriarchal, not one that is Islamic,” she says.
Indeed, in Yemen it was a conservative female Islamist who provided the spark and key leadership for the pro-democracy protests that eventually prompted the current transition.
“Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi may have replaced the autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh as president of Yemen, but a 33-year-old mother of three is the star of the uprising,” writes Abigail Fielding-Smith.
Tawakul Karman, a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah, was an experienced campaigner when the winds of change blew from north Africa to Yemen in early 2011.
Her relationship with Islah is not straightforward – she clashed with its conservative wing a few years ago over its opposition to raising the minimum age for marriage (about a quarter of girls under 15 are married in Yemen). But for some, campaigning against such regressive norms under the umbrella of an Islamist party is a contradiction.
Bushra al Maqtari, a feminist writer, says: “She can speak to the emotion of the people, but I don’t think she can bring the necessary social and political change that Yemen needs.”
Farea al Muslimi, a young activist, argues that real change in Yemen needs both Ms Karman, within the religious establishment, as well as figures outside it.
“You need Tawakul to stay in Islah, and not leave it to Salafists [religious extremists],” he says, “and people like Bushra can work with people who are less Islamist.”
“A few years ago, Ala’a Shehabi (right), daughter of one of Bahrain’s most famous dissidents, was just another academic,” writes Simeon Kerr:
She was brought up in London, where her father, Saeed Shehabi, remained when other exiled political leaders returned to Bahrain after King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa introduced political reforms in 2001.
In 2009, she returned to her homeland to teach economics at a banking institute. She married and had a son. But for the 31-year-old, like so many others, the Arab spring changed everything…..
“This revolution has empowered women who were forced out into the streets during the crackdown, because so many men were arrested or in hiding,” she says.
Ms Shehabi has established a website, Bahrain Watch, which tracks implementation of reforms, as well as the regime’s attempts to improve Bahrain’s image abroad.
Karman’s Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO, and many other Arab women’s groups are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.