Is the Arab Awakening Marginalizing Women?
In a conference addressing the role of women in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening, women leaders from the Middle East and the United States discussed the implications for women’s rights under the emerging Islamist regimes.
On May 14, the Middle East Program and the Council of Women World Leaders of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a two-panel meeting on “Is the Arab Awakening Marginalizing Women?” with Fatima Sbaity-Kassem, Former Director of the UN-ESCWA Centre for Women; Lilia Labidi, Visiting Research Professor of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, Former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Tunisia, and Former Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center; Moushira Khattab, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Former Egyptian Ambassador to South Africa and the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Former Minister of Family and Population in Egypt; Rend Al-Rahim, Executive Director of the Iraq Foundation and Former Iraqi Ambassador the United States; Rola Dashti, Former member of Kuwaiti Parliament and Chairman of the Kuwait Economic Society; Caryle Murphy, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center; and Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Director of the Women in Public Service Project Institute 2012 at Wellesley College and Director of International Human Rights Policy at Wellesley Centers for Women. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, provided welcoming remarks and moderated the first panel, and Robin Wright, USIP and Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar, moderated the second panel. Jane Harman, President, Director and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.
Jane Harman stressed the threat of marginalization of women in the political, economic, and social spheres in countries across the region, where women are not faring well. There is a growing rift between secular and Islamist women amidst worries of Salafis undermining women’s rights. But President Harman remained optimistic, citing the actions of Iranian women who continue to fight repression and have managed to achieve incremental success.
Sbaity-Kassem began the discussion by stating that the uprisings raised aspirations for equality and expectations of imminent social change. However, the rise of Islamists after the uprisings caused women to find themselves outside the political process, losing ground in women’s rights and political participation. Political parties’ concern with retaining power overshadows the advancement of women’s rights, but they may decrease in religiosity to retain power. Nevertheless, reforms increasing female political participation, the withdrawal of reservations on CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women), and a more connected network of vocal women provide hope in advancing women’s issues.
Labidi began her presentation by describing a “second Tunisia” consisting of rural areas where women face high poverty and illiteracy rates and lack the legal and economic rights accorded to women in metropolitan areas. For decades, the state has taken care of city women and has not been present in rural areas, leaving the work to NGOs. If even the government lacks the means to service these areas, NGOs will not be able to compensate and play the role of the state in working for these women. Labidi stated that the government must work to have the state present everywhere in order to provide public services.
Khattab explained that Egyptian women were treated as equals during the revolution. Afterwards, however, they were excluded from the constitutional assembly and occupied fewer parliamentary seats than before the uprising. Increased religiosity has led to open criticism of laws guaranteeing women’s rights, efforts to overturn them, and diffusion of the belief that a woman’s place is in the home. In the upcoming presidential elections, women’s issues have been ignored. Khattab argued that changes in women’s status should not be linked to regime change. Since states are bound by international law to protect women’s rights, she believes they should be embedded in society.
To start the second panel, Al-Rahim illustrated the situation in Iraq. Although Iraq experienced an awakening in 2003, there was a resurgence of tribal culture when Islamist parties came to power in 2005. Polygamy, which is legal but constrained in Iraq, became more prevalent. Illegal practices such as unregistered, temporary, and child marriages increased, along with honor killings and the practice of giving girls to settle tribal disputes. Laws are not enforced and even women who know they can seek legal redress fear to do so because of the backlash. However, alliances between religious and secular women on specific issues and the activism of women’s NGOs are acting to promote women’s rights.
Dashti expressed concern that women are going from being marginalized to being excluded, relegated to the home and traditional jobs. The women who played a role in the protests are no longer visible in the public sphere, leaving women to try and regain the progress they made before they can move forward. According to Dashti, political Islamists are the beneficiaries of revolutions they did not start, using women’s issues to polarize society and avoid addressing economic issues. She questioned the assumption that Islamists would become more moderate and accommodate women’s rights for fear of being voted out of power, explaining that laws may be altered so that fair elections may not take place in the future.
Murphy explained that Saudi women, who have lived under Islamist rule for centuries, were encouraged by other women in the region to launch protest movements, including a campaign against the country’s driving restriction. Due to a low tolerance for female activism, Saudi women prefer to work behind the scenes, avoiding street protest, confrontation, and outside aid. Murphy noted that progress has been made possible by the king, who issued a soft response to the driving campaign, decreed women can vote and compete in the 2015 elections, and backed reforms to promote women’s employment and reduce domestic violence.
De Silva de Alwis discussed women’s roles in post-conflict situations. She explained that post-conflict situations are opportunities for constitutions to be rewritten, problems to be addressed, and legal transformations to occur. De Silva de Alwis said legal reform must embody international law and inclusive security that ensures safety for women. In post-conflict situations, strong and powerful women’s movements are needed to mobilize women against rights violations. She stressed that women cannot wait to demand their rights after a revolution; instead, they need to anticipate problems and be proactive to ensure they are not excluded.
By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program
Read MEP’s latest publication on women in the Arab Spring: Reflections on Women in the Arab Spring