- Published on Thursday, 03 May 2012 19:29
It has been sixteen months since Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated, setting the Arab world ablaze with calls for freedom, justice and equality. One of the few things for certain in the Arab Spring is the powerful role women have played in these epic struggles for revolutionary change.
In uprisings that have upended countries throughout the region, women have braved tear gas, rubber pellets, live ammunition, beatings, rape, and detentions just as men have. In Egypt, videos of activist Asmaa Mahfouz imploring her fellow Egyptians to join the protest movement that would eventually unseat President Hosni Mubarak from power went viral. Netizens watched Bahraini security forces handcuff and drag Zaynab Al Khawaja to a police bus for chanting ‘Down Hamad’ in Pearl Square last December. When fearless Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi was recently detained by the Assad regime, the outcry of the cyber community was strongly felt as countless Twitter avatars featured Razan’s face in solidarity.
This past October, the world watched Tawakul Karman—a leading figure in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen—receive a Nobel Peace Prize for rallying her countrymen and women behind the cause of freedom. The meaningful contributions of women to the ongoing uprisings are well-documented and have already achieved one transformative outcome in the consciousness of onlookers the world over: Middle Eastern women are not silent and will not be silenced.
Arab women—a largely Muslim population—have exploded their stereotype as subservient casualties of patriarchy, which has myopically defined them for far too long. While this necessary shift in the discourse on Middle Eastern women is a victory indeed, as countries of the Arab Awakening enter transitional periods, questions concerning women’s rights—a critical indicator of democratic development—in the political and economic futures of these nations come to the forefront. In order to gauge how the activism of women in these revolutions is translating into political influence and legal gains, one must examine the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, the first countries of the Arab Awakening to hold free elections.
The leading Islamist party in Tunisia, Ennahda, coasted to power with over 41% of the vote in recent parliamentary elections. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice party won 46% of the seats in parliament while the ultra-conservative Salafi Al Nour party took 21% of the seats, a win that undoubtedly bolsters the standing of right-leaning Muslim Brothers. After decades of secular autocratic regimes, an Islamist current is sweeping through the region. Increasingly, commentators, academics, and experts speculate about how Islamist leadership will affect the rights of women and other minorities, particularly religious minorities. Secularists and foreign governments are anxious that the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda party, and other Islamist parties will suppress these rights in deference to religious principles. In an electoral platform issued by the Freedom and Justice Party that characterizes rights as a fundamental Islamic principle, it proclaims that citizens should not be discriminated against on the basis of sex, religion, or color.
However, in the party’s manifesto it clearly states, “support for the empowerment of women of their complete rights, which do not conflict with basic values of society.” Qualifiers such as this prevent FJP’s platform from a fully-fledged commitment to the rights of women in the country. And while Ennahda has announced that it does not plan to curtail women’s rights in Tunisia, the group rejects widening the scope of rights through granting women the same inheritance rights as men. These kinds of contradictions and limitations continue to shape the trajectory of women’s rights in North Africa and the Middle East.
The central issue animating the debate on post-revolutionary women’s rights in Tunisia is whether the Personal Status law promulgated under independence leader Habib Bourgiba in 1956 will be rolled back by an Islamist-led government. The document entrenched a culture of gender equality by granting more rights in matters of marriage, divorce, and abortion but not inheritance. The deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali continued this trend expanding divorce and custody rights for women and advancing their education and employment. The literacy rate for Tunisian women is 71% —the highest of women in North African countries. The rights enjoyed by women since independence have become an important part of Tunisian political identity.
The recently voted-in 217-member Constituent Assembly, which has elected an interim government and is in the process of drafting a new constitution, is 25% female. Moreover, out of the 13-member executive committee of Ennahda, two are women. By any standard, these are no small gains. As Tunisia settles into a more distinctly Islamist identity, the question on women’s minds is whether right-wing Islamist groups on the fringes like the Salafis will gain a platform to challenge established social norms and gender equality in Tunisian society.
Unlike Tunisia, the ongoing murky political transition in Egypt has alienated various segments of society, particularly women. It is not uncommon to hear women’s rights activists recall the Mubarak era with nostalgia. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, was eager to make women’s rights her token political issue, which proved to be helpful, if disingenuous and politically motivated. She headed the National Women’s Council and has widely been credited for driving legislation enabling females to become judges and banning female genital mutilation. However, veteran women’s rights activists say she jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute long after the battle had been waged. Other important laws enacted in the last Mubarak decade included allowing Egyptian women married to foreign men to pass on their nationality to their children and the increase of the minimum age for marriage to eighteen years. These laws have undoubtedly improved the lives of Egyptian woman, but in a post-Mubarak revolutionary climate, people are distrustful of anything associated with the former regime —including important gains for women attained during his tenure. For instance, the electoral law adopted for this past November’s parliamentary elections overturned the Mubarak government’s provision for a women’s quota allowing women 64 out of 518 seats in parliament.
Since the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power just over a year ago, women, once trailblazers of the protest movement, have suffered targeted human rights violations and found themselves on the margins of the decision-making process. On International Women’s day last year, not a month after Mubarak’s departure, a group of women marching in Tahrir Square were beaten and sexually harassed. The next day over a dozen women were beaten, detained and forced to undergo degrading virginity tests after being pushed out of Tahrir Square. An Egyptian general later defended the virginity tests and implied that the young women got what they deserved for camping out in tents with men. Moreover, SCAF did not appoint any women to the constitutional committee for the referendum last March. Last July, in a reshuffle of provincial governors, SCAF failed to designate any female governors conveniently citing concerns that it was unsafe on the streets for them. Finally, and perhaps most flagrantly, this past December, military officers stripped and beat female protestors on the streets in a gross display of violence. A now iconic image of a woman stripped out of her Abaya down to her blue bra by military officers as they stomped on her chest marked a dark new phase in the struggle between protestors and the military leadership.
Since last year, the behavior of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces has surpassed patriarchal and dangerously approaches thinly disguised misogyny. The ruling junta has rendered the concerns and rights of women irrelevant during this transitional period. Hence, it stands to logic that some activists believe it was better for women under Mubarak. Do women’s rights have better prospects with a new Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament in place and a strong Salafi presence in government?
Since the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a more conciliatory tone regarding women’s issues, but it is too early to determine if that indicates a true commitment to advancing the political and economic participation of women and promoting their rights. In October, the Al Nour party held a conference entitled “Women’s Role in Political Life” yet not one of the speakers was a woman. Of serious concern to women, Copts and liberals alike is the emphasis Islamist parties have placed on curbing alcohol sales and segregating public spaces in the country. These same groups are anxious about recent polls showing that over 60% of Egyptians agree that Shari’a should be the sole source of law in the country. We have yet to see how the Muslim Brothers, a diverse group with liberal, moderate and conservative strains, will interpret Shari’a and derive legislation from it. There are no women in the group’s executive committee or its executive bureaus except for one. Meanwhile, according to many, the female wing of the Muslim Brotherhood—the Muslim Sisters—does not operate under its own authority. The fact is the leadership of the Muslim Sisters is male and the top priorities of the group are preserving an Islamic society as well as the traditional female roles of mother and wife. Currently, women make up less than 2% of the Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament, winning only 8 out of 498 seats. In spite of this of this bleak reality for Egyptian women, Bothaina Kamel became the first woman to run for president in Egypt; even though she recently withdrew her candidacy, Kamel’s intrepid pursuit of the office set a historic precedent. What mattered more than detractors’ incessant predictions that she was sure to lose, was that she showed Egyptian women and girls everywhere that seeking the highest office in the land is not just an aspiration, it’s a right.
Although each country of the Arab Awakening is distinct, the post-revolutionary experiences of women in Tunisia and Egypt are instructive for all women in the region. As more uprisings succeed and democracies are forged throughout the Arab world, the role of religion in politics will increase significantly and women’s rights will emerge as an even more crucial site of contestation. In the emergent multiparty political systems, all sides will have to make concessions. Analysts predict that ruling parties like Ennahda and the FJP that bear the burden of government will gradually embrace pragmatic stances on contentious issues. For their part, some women’s rights activists are studying the Shari’a in an effort to understand how Islamic law and texts are reconciled with women’s rights and more widely, human rights. Investing in the work of female exegetes and theologians could be a strong starting point for these efforts. In terms of making progress toward meaningful political participation from women, maintaining and implementing quotas for women in leadership positions will continue to prove useful. Earlier this month, the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace scored a stunning victory for Libyan women—and all Arab women for that matter—when the National Transitional Council adopted a new electoral law that guarantees women 40 seats on the 200-member Constituent Assembly that will draft the country’s new constitution. Such advancements for women should lead the march toward pluralism and genuine democratic change in the political, social and economic topographies of the Middle East.
The verdict is still out on whether or not the Arab Spring will ultimately be good for women but it is undeniable that never has a moment been so ripe for Arab women to seize and demand robust rights that will be the foundation of true equality.
By Areej Noor, Aslan Media Women’s Editor