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An Arab Spring for Women

The missing story from the Middle East.

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 7:50 PM EDT

Protecting Women's Gains

Despite the centrality of women activists to the Arab Spring, they have seldom been recognized as of real significance by most of the male politicians who will undoubtedly benefit from what they have accomplished. It was, for example, striking that women were without representation on the commission appointed to revise the Egyptian constitution in preparation for September elections, and that only one woman (a Mubarak holdover at that) was appointed to the 29-person interim cabinet.

In addition, patriarchal forces such as Muslim fundamentalist groups and clergy are determined that women's rights should not be expanded in the wake of these political upheavals. As an omen in the wind, when a modest-sized group of 200 women showed up at Tahrir Square on March 8th to commemorate International Women's Day, they found themselves attacked by militant religious young men who shouted that they should go home and do the laundry.

Women's groups and progressive movements are understandably apprehensive about the possibility that, in Tunisia and Egypt, Muslim fundamentalist movements will become more influential in parliament and push through laws to the disadvantage of both women and secularists. Yet they have been remarkably unwilling to let such considerations deter them from embracing democracy, something secular-leaning dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak had warned them against.

The likelihood of an actual Muslim fundamentalist takeover in either country remains minimal for the foreseeable future. In Egypt, the military government has so far retained a Mubarak-era ban on the Muslim Brotherhood putting up candidates under its own banner. As a result, its candidates will run as the representatives of other small parties. In addition, the organization has pledged to contest parliamentary seats in only a limited number of electoral districts, so as to allay middle-class fears that their goal is an Iran-style fundamentalist takeover of the country. Admittedly, Muslim conservatism will likely burgeon as a political current more generally in Egypt, whatever the shape of the next parliament, posing a challenge to women's rights.

For instance, some Brotherhood officials have let slip that they will indeed be working for the implementation of a medieval form of Islamic law, which would include the segregation of women and men in the workplace, while the mufti or chief adviser on Islamic law to the government in Egypt has called for a "review" of secular personal status laws that favor women, and which had been supported by Suzanne Mubarak, the fashionable wife of the deposed dictator.

In Tunisia, the long years of repression under Ben Ali left the leading fundamentalist group, al-Nahda or the Renaissance Party, weakened. In any case its leader Rashid Ghannouchi has been speaking of institutionalizing a "Turkish model" and says that, unlike the Egyptian Brotherhood, he supports the right of a woman to become the country's president.

In this, he is looking to former Turkish fundamentalists like Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul who, tired of being imprisoned by and butting heads with the secular Turkish establishment, founded the Justice and Development Party. Since coming to power in 2002, they have fought for a pluralistic system as a way of making a place for more traditional Muslims in society and politics without pushing for the implementation of medieval Muslim legal codes.

Still, as backlash reactions like the attack on the International Women's Day protest have set in, activists on women's issues and progressives are wondering how to ensure that women's gains this spring not be rolled back. In Egypt, prominent newscaster and critic of the Mubarak regime Buthaina Kamel has her own idea about how to gain women's rights in a new, more democratic environment. She is running for president, something inconceivable in the Mubarak era.

Even if her run gets little traction, her candidacy is nevertheless deeply symbolic and historic—and another strikingly brave act by a woman in this new era in the Arab world. (Her decision is, of course, opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood.) Other Egyptian women are hoping that the constitution can be rewritten to strengthen women's rights, and that the 64 seats set aside for women in the previous parliament will be retained.

Politicians in the transitional government of Tunisia, for decades the most progressive Arab country with regard to women's rights, are determined to protect the public role of women by making sure they are well represented in the new legislature. Elections are now planned for July 24th, and a high commission was appointed to set electoral rules. That body has already announced that party lists will have to maintain parity between male and female candidates.

In such a list system, you don't vote for an individual but a party, which has published an ordered list of its candidates. If the list gets 10% of the vote nationally, it is awarded 10 percent of the seats in parliament, and can go down its ordered list until it fills all those seats. Parity for women means that every other candidate on the ordered list should be a woman, ensuring them high representation in the legislature. This procedure is sometimes called a "zipper" gender quota. Quotas for female legislators are common in Scandinavia and in the global South.

Although the Tunisian requirement for gender parity remains controversial in some quarters, Ghannouchi's al-Nahda Party recently came out in support of it. In contrast, Abdelwaheb El Hani, leader of the newly founded right-of-center party al-Majd, complained that the rule was "a violation of freedom of electoral choice," and insisted that he doubted it would be effective in promoting women's representation. In contrast, the leftist al-Tajdid (Renewal) Party praised the move as "historic" and pledged to make women's equality an "irreversible accomplishment and an effective reality in Tunisian political life." Indeed, al-Tajdid wants an explicit equal rights amendment put into the constitution.

Giving Women a Fighting Chance

The Arab Spring has proven an epochal period of activism and change for women, recalling the role of early feminists in the 1919 Egyptian movement for independence from Britain, or the important place of women in the Algerian Revolution. The sheer numbers of politically active women in this series of uprisings, however, dwarf their predecessors. That this female element in the Arab Spring has drawn so little comment in the West suggests that our own narratives of, and preoccupations with, the Arab world—religion, fundamentalism, oil and Israel—have blinded us to the big social forces that are altering the lives of 300 million people.

Women have been aided by this generation's advances in education and the professions, by the prominence of articulate women anchors on satellite television networks like Aljazeera, and by the rise of the Internet and social media. Women can assert leadership roles in cyberspace that young men's dominance of the public sphere might have hampered in city squares.

Their prominence in the labor movements and at the public rallies in Tunisia and Egypt, moreover, underlines how much more of a public role they now have than is usually acknowledged. Even the trend toward wearing a headscarf among women in Egypt during the past two decades has been seen by some social scientists as a step forward. It has been a way for women to enter the public sphere and work outside the home in greater numbers than ever before while maintaining a claim on conservative ideals of chastity and piety.

Women activists of the Arab Spring have come from all social classes, since it has been a mass movement. Middle and upper class women often focus their political energies on issues of political representation and on laws affecting women's equality. Seeking constitutional guarantees of electoral parity is one possible way of responding to any patriarchal political backlash.

Working class women are particularly concerned with wages and workers' rights. Stronger unions would improve women's prospects for greater rights. Women's health, literacy, and material wellbeing are concerns of all women. During the age of the dictators, the nation's wealth was often usurped by a narrow elite of politically connected families. A democratization of politics could potentially lead to more state resources being devoted to women and the poor.

Keep in mind that women such as Buthaina Kamel knew the risks when they called for Mubarak to step down. Whatever their patronizing appeals to feminist themes, authoritarian regimes like Mubarak's and Ben Ali's politically oppressed and stole from everyone in society, including women, and they had proved increasingly unable to deliver the social services and employment on which women and their families fundamentally depend for a better life. Before, women could be marginalized at will by the dictators whenever they made demands on the regime. Now, at least, they have a fighting chance.

Shahin Cole holds an LL.B. from Punjab University Law School in Pakistan and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website.

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