Three experts on women’s issues discussed the key challenges and opportunities for women's political participation and rights in countries throughout the Middle East following the Arab Spring.
On January 30, 2014, the Middle East Program and Global Women’s Leadership Initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Center and CARE hosted an event “Arab Spring or Arab Autumn: Women’s Political Participation in the Arab Uprisings and Beyond” with Stephenie Foster, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Global Women’s Issues, State Department; Sherine Ibrahim, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and Eastern Europe, CARE; and Maryam Jamshidi, founder of Muftah.org, and author of The Future of the Arab Spring: Civic Entrepreneurship in Politics, Art, and Technology Startups. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event and noted that the Middle East Program has convened 131 meetings on gender issues in the MENA region. Since the start of the Arab Spring, the Program has hosted 10 meetings with women from the region. Esfandiari summarized the conclusions of these meetings regarding how women have fared in the Arab Spring as “euphoria, disappointment, and now fighting back.”
Ibrahim framed her discussion with the fact that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region currently ranks at the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Report in women’s political participation and empowerment indices. In the MENA region, women hold just under 13 percent of parliamentary seats. Despite the spotlight on women’s issues as a result of the Arab Spring, Ibrahim said that today such concerns are less noticeable. She added that voices supporting women’s issues have been replaced with concerns about security, safety, and terrorism. Ibrahim indicated that fragmentation and competition among those who were advocating and working for women’s issues is a significant problem in the region today. She stressed the three main dividing issues are geographic (urban vs. rural), generational (old vs. young), and ideological (secular vs. religious). An additional problem is what Ibrahim called “intolerant liberals” who are not helping to advance a common agenda on women’s issues. She emphasized the need for more dialogue to facilitate and bridge divides among the different groups. Ibrahim also discussed a few program and policy-focused recommendations from a recently released CARE report on women’s political participation in the Middle East.
Jamshidi discussed the key differences in the women’s movements in the region before and after the Arab uprisings. Unlike Ibrahim, she believes that the post-Arab Spring environment is more collaborative and that there has been greater cooperation among old and new actors. Jamshidi said such cooperation is between artists and activists as well. She added that various diaspora movements have also worked extensively with those who stayed in their home countries. She then noted that women were active before the Arab Spring as well, however, they faced the same restrictions as men. In the end, Jamshidi suggested that benchmarks should be set based on what women in the Middle East think they need in order to advance women’s issues in the region.
Foster spoke about her work in the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, which advocates for women throughout the world. She stated that greater women’s political participation provides a building block for developing countries with stronger economic and political systems. Foster said they try to discover ways to help institutionalize women’s participation in the political sphere as decision makers. She emphasized that as decisions are made with women’s input and participation in the process, women’s views will be better more represented. Foster discussed the importance of protecting women from gender-based violence in the region and stressed the importance of access for recovery as conflicts continue.
By the Middle East Program