Women after the Arab Awakening
Women played frontline roles in the Arab uprisings, but have since faced growing political hurdles during the transitions. Nine female activists from Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya outlined the specific challenges to women’s participation at a meeting sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in October 2012. They also offered strategies for empowering women. The following are excerpts from their presentations, edited by the Middle East Program.
Hala Al Dosari, Ph.D. candidate in health services research; and opinion writer
Activists are working through networks of local and international NGOs and media outlets. The virtual world is the hub for women activists, allowing them to maneuver around official censorship and experience the freedom of unlimited interaction. Women are creating a discourse on gender roles and expectations, social norms, and women’s rights. They are becoming visible despite gender segregation and lack of representation. Sometimes, campaigns created locally and internationally succeed. The inclusion of two Saudi women in the 2012 official Olympic team was one small victory that has not yet translated into sporting opportunities for all Saudi women.
Regardless of Saudi Arabia’s reservation to only adhere to Islamic standards in the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), extremists inside Saudi Arabia have distorted the tenets of CEDAW. However, gender equality is still possible. Activists believe that the alignment of local laws and regulations with the Basic Law of Governance should take precedence. Article 8 of the Basic Law states that the government is based on the premise of justice, consultation, and equality in accordance with Sharia. Aligning local laws with Article 8 is crucial to empowering women in the public sphere. In personal space, a personal status law will be needed. “Om Salama” represents several groups of women in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam working to reinterpret women’s rights through 60 verses of the Qur’an. The groups were named after a wise wife of the Muslim prophet who once solved a serious political dispute. Their mission is to introduce a new egalitarian concept of women’s rights and to eventually draft a new personal status code.
Gabool Al-Mutawakel, Co-Founder, Youth Leadership Development Foundation and co-founder of the Al Watan Party in Yemen
There are two major challenges facing Yemeni women. First is the politicization of Islam—a practice in which religion is used for political interests, which tends to negatively and disproportionately affect women more than men. For example, women’s political participation and their ability to reach high leadership positions are governed by religious scholars and their fatwas. In addition, religious notions are wrongfully manipulated to criminalize politically active women. For example, religion is used in personal attacks that smear a woman’s reputation and question her credibility as a Muslim woman, which can then negatively sway the opinions of ordinary citizens. The other challenge is the politicization of women’s issues. The best example in Yemen is the issue of early marriage, which was first raised as a human rights issue in the past few years but transformed into a conflict and area of negotiation between the two most prominent parties in Yemen, the General People’s Congress and the Islah Party.
Nevertheless, the opportunities for women in Yemen are enormous during this period of transition. Society is still in the mood for transformation and is anticipating and accepting of change more than ever before. Women should take maximum advantage of this momentum in order to increase their leadership roles within their communities.
Honey Al-Sayed, Director, Syria Program, Nonviolence International and former host and producer, Syrian radio show “Good Morning Syria”
We can begin to prepare Syrian women to take an active role across the spectrum of society. We can look to friendly nations for guidance, but we must make our own decisions. To begin with, we must develop civil society organizations and embrace the concept of true non-governmental organizations. Through these organizations, we can educate our women—in fact, all Syrians— and offer training in things like leadership skills, citizenship, and communications. We can teach women how to detect and combat sexism and abuse everywhere—in the home, in the workplace, and on the street. By building our institutions and our capacity, I believe we can start on a massive education campaign that will ultimately create a snowball effect that will support our emerging democracy.
By participating in the political, public health, educational, and economic sectors, I believe Syrian women in the post-Assad phase will continue to be a driving force in the future of Syria. Even today, under the harshest political repression, Syrian women have been able to start the process of their own empowerment. They are educating their children, their neighbors, and yes, their husbands, in equal work and equal rights.
Rihab Elhaj, Co-founder and Executive Director, New Libya Foundation
Libyans at large must acknowledge the great significance and value of women’s contribution in developing a nation. Finally and most importantly, Libyan women themselves must choose to support one another and together take what is rightfully theirs.
It is worth noting that the dialogue on women’s rights in Libya has been expectant and oftentimes extraneous, considering the backdrop of chaos in the newborn democracy and particularly exacerbated by Libya’s institutional voids. Efforts toward promoting just and empowering socio-cultural shifts and policies are mostly bound to be ineffectual due to Libya’s absolute lack of institutions to implement them. Libyans and our allies would best benefit from a collective acknowledgement and dialogue on the urgency and importance of building strong, transparent, effective, and inclusive institutions as an essential first step toward the viability of a democratic state. Ensuring women are fully engaged in the institution-building dialogue and process can guarantee that Libya’s political, civic, and economic institutions work for women as a matter of course.
Hanin Ghaddar, Managing Editor, NOW News (Lebanon), and Public Policy Scholar, Wilson Center
When Islam becomes part of the political system, rather than a matter of personal or spiritual choice, women’s rights always suffer.
In my opinion, the Arab Spring made it obvious to the people that if any change needs to be made, it must be drastic. No more small steps or negotiating with the powers, political or religious. No more compromises and reconciliation. The Arab Spring is about people changing things themselves without waiting for permission or approval.
That’s exactly what women should do: make big strides and take what is theirs with their own hands and bodies. In Egypt, Islamists are trying to amend the constitution against women and their rights over their bodies…Freedom in the Arab world cannot be complete without the freedom of women, and women’s freedom would still be flawed without the right to one’s body. Islam is certainly not the solution. Islamic feminism is too slow for our times, and the only solution is a clear and strong path toward separating the state from religion.
Without strong action in this direction, the future will be really bleak for women in the region.
Omezzine Khélifa, Politician and Advisor, Tunisian Ministry of Tourism
Women have a weighty and decisive presence in all these fields, in all the arenas where the battle for more democracy is being waged: in civil society, as journalists fighting for freedom of the press; as human rights activists fighting for free speech; as judges, lawyers, and accountability experts fighting against corruption and for the independence of justice as well as imagining a new, independent electoral body; as artists fighting for their right to create without restriction or censorship; and as teachers fighting for the right to instruct without fear.
Tunisian institutions and society are undergoing profound change from within. The days of irresponsibility are over. Tunisians of all walks of life are denouncing injustice and speaking out loud to make their voices heard. Thus, they are the genuine actors of change, slowly but surely moving mentalities and behaviors from postdictatorship disorder and uncertainty toward structured and united demands for stability and democracy.
Dalia Ziada, Executive Director, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies
Egyptian women’s rights are almost grinding between two large stones. The first is the patriarchal mindset that traps women in stereotypical female roles and stigmatizes any woman who tries to break out of this mold. The second is the rise of political Islamists who perpetuate this patriarchal mentality and are misinterpreting religion to justify the social and political marginalization of women in the name of Islam. However, Egyptian women are heroically struggling to push against the two stones and claim the space to which they are entitled as an essential force behind Egypt’s spring.
Nevertheless, we should remain optimistic about the unlimited powers of the Egyptian woman. Women’s sufferings during democratization are not unique to the Egyptian case and culture. In recent democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa, women suffered marginalization, and it took a long time and much effort to win full equality with men. We have our own story of Hoda Sha’arawi, the first woman activist to lead a protest in 1919 to encourage more women to get involved in politics and the first to take off her niqab in 1923 to encourage other women to be more involved in social activities.
Today’s Egypt is full of countless numbers of Hoda’s granddaughters. They have led the 2011 revolution and are currently leading their country through democratic transition. It is only a matter of time before Egyptians realize that the Arab Spring cannot come about without flowers, and, thus, democracy cannot be achieved without women.
Fahmia Al-Fotih, Communication analyst and youth focal point analyst, United Nations Population Fund
It is too early to say that the Arab Awakening has been or can be a “spring” for Yemeni women, as it has not thus far. With prevailing political instability and insecurity, as well as the looming power of Islamists whose agenda toward women is unfriendly, the future for Yemeni women is still unclear. There are many persistent challenges ahead for women in this country, where a majority of women are illiterate and live in rural areas. This makes them economically vulnerable, segregates them from the public domain, leaves them unaware of their rights, and makes them easy and submissive prey—even supporters of Islamist agendas and ideologies.
Yemeni women, whether northern, southern, Houthi, liberal, or conservative, have to stand up firmly as one voice if they really want women to advance. Otherwise, women always will be exploited and underrepresented.
The future of women in Yemen is still unknown because the Islamists and conservatives who took part in writing the constitution 20 years ago are still threatening that they are the ones who will write the future constitution of Yemen. Increasing the fear of this possibility is the lack of female legislators in the country.
The uprisings of the Arab Spring may have been a “blossoming” for some but definitely not for Yemeni women so far.
Yassmine ElSayed Hani, Wilson Center Visiting Journalist and Independent Journalist, Foreign Desk, Al Akhbar daily newspaper
The ongoing struggle in Egypt is not merely between women’s rights activists and those who want to deprive them of previous gains. Rather, it is going to be between those who struggle for real democracy, which appreciates all the components of society, and those who wish to play politics with old, exclusion-based rules.
The space of freedom provided by the revolution enabled women to act freely—though it made them vulnerable to criticism, if not attacks, as well—because this freedom was given to all parties: moderates and extremists, the right and the left, conservatives and liberals, and so on. During this transitional phase, the rules of engagement in Egyptian society are still being crafted, and it is the most critical time for shaping Egypt’s future.
The domination of certain political ideologies does not determine the “final word” when it comes to the status of women in Egypt. Rather, it is a natural part of the competitive political climate that is rapidly changing. The reasons for optimism outweigh those for pessimism—at least for youth if not for politicians. This optimism is increasingly becoming the air many are breathing, myself included. It is certain, however, that the position of women is embedded in the position of the whole society, whether oppressed or free, developed or underdeveloped, democratic or suffering under a dictatorship. It is still too early to judge any of this.
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