Lilia Labidi, Minister of Women's Affairs for the Republic of Tunisia, and Moushira Khattab, former Minister of Family and Population for Egypt, discussed the role and expectations of women in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, as well as issues to consider as these two countries move forward.
On June 2, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, "The Future of Women in the MENA Region, a Tunisian and Egyptian Perspective" with Labidi, also a former Wilson Center Fellow, and Khattab, also former Ambassador of Egypt to the Republic of South Africa, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Labidi focused on the participation of women in the protests in Tunisia and their aftermath. She emphasized that these developments give hope, as they attest to the mixed nature of the demonstrations in which women were not sidelined but marched amongst men. She pointed to the way that Tunisian women have entered the public space and played vital roles in spreading images and information about the protests around the world. Labidi stated that although the future of women in Tunisia remains uncertain, it is unlikely that they will cease to be active and retreat to the private sphere. She commented on the new parity resolution calling for an equal number of male and female candidates for each party in Tunisia's July elections and the opportunities afforded by an increase in political pluralism and media outlets.
Labidi elaborated on her efforts as Tunisia's Minister of Women's Affairs, discussing the Ministry's achieved results and future goals. She stressed the importance of aiding women living in poverty, changing the cultural role of women, and boosting confidence in the government's ability to address women's needs. In particular, Labidi spoke of the work to expand the Ministry's regional offices to become more accessible to rural and non-elite sectors of Tunisian society. She hoped that recent events will encourage recognition of women as regional political actors and that the United States will expand intellectual and political ties with Tunisia.
Khattab pointed out the numerous similarities between the role of women in Tunisia and in Egypt, mentioning that women's participation in public demonstrations and disseminating information to the media "has set the stage for a paradigm shift in the rights of citizens." She noted that there are many advances yet to be made for women, youth, and other groups but that the protests have begun a change towards "a democratic, rights-based Egypt."
Although she saw women's involvement as a part of continuing progress in women's rights, Khattab made note of the various obstacles to freedom that women in Egypt still face. She expressed concern that the politics of revenge against the previous regime might sideline women in politics, who already have less representation in the government than they did under Mubarak and have been excluded from the committee drawing up a new Egyptian constitution. She noted the need to change social perceptions that "women already enjoy all their rights." She also discussed how the new media freedom gives fundamentalist groups a platform to propagate narrow interpretations of faith that call for the repeal of some of the existing women's rights laws. She posed the question of what interpretations of the faith would allow for a greater harmonization with domestic laws based on the ideals of human rights.
By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program