Is the Arab Spring Bad for Women?

Overthrowing male dominance could be harder than overthrowing a dictator.


In many ways, 2011 has been the Year of the Arab Woman. From the earliest days of upheaval that started in Tunisia last December, women have been on the front lines of protest, leading public demonstrations, blogging passionately, covering the unrest as journalists, launching social media campaigns, smuggling munitions, and caring for the wounded. This month, when Tawakkol Karman became the first Arab woman to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, she gave an enthusiastic shout-out to her many Arab sisters who have struggled "to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men."

Across the region, though, Arab women are grumbling that overthrowing dictators is proving easier than overturning the pervasive supremacy of men. Gamila Ismail, a prominent Egyptian activist and politician, summed it up when she quit Egypt’s parliamentary race in disgust after learning that she would be put third on the list in her district — not a winning position. "We women had a very important role before, during, and after the revolution, and it does not work for us today, to accept this," she complained in a television interview. (She ran and narrowly lost as an independent candidate.) In Tunisia, disgruntled women activists have formed the October 24 Front to defend women’s rights in the aftermath of the Islamists’ electoral victory there. "We want a constitution that respects women’s rights and doesn’t roll back the advances we’ve made," said one Tunisian protester.

Arab women are embattled on multiple fronts. First and foremost are the deep-seated patriarchal customs that constrain women. Patriarchy is certainly not unique to Arab lands, but it runs deep. It doesn’t help that for decades, the women’s rights agenda was closely associated with the now-discredited authoritarian regimes: Egypt’s Suzanne Mubarak ran a state-affiliated women’s NGO; Leila Ben Ali, Tunisia’s much-hated hairdresser-cum-first lady, was president of the Arab Women Organization, an intergovernmental body sponsored by the Arab League; and both Syria’s Asma al-Assad and Jordan’s Queen Rania have been active on women’s issues. The rise of politically empowered Islamist parties that contest existing laws for women on religious grounds also pose serious complications for women. Although women’s activism has clearly been important to the Arab revolts, there is no guarantee that women’s rights activists will be able to turn their engagement into longer-term economic, social, and political gains. In fact, in some countries, there is reason for concern that women will see their rights erode.

Libya is a case in point. At the ceremony marking Libya’s official liberation in October, one of the first announcements from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council, was that any laws that contradicted sharia would be annulled. He specifically mentioned that, going forward, polygamy would be legal, drawing cheers and celebratory gunfire from the mostly male crowd. Libyan women expressed surprise and disappointment and wondered why, with all of Libya’s pressing issues, reinstating polygamy should be on the front burner. (NATO leaders wondered the same.) Although polygamy was technically legal under Qaddafi, it was discouraged and today is not practiced widely in Libya, but that could change. Female university students, who largely describe themselves as pious, vow to fight this regression.

In Egypt, a number of developments over the past year underscore women’s rights as a flashpoint in society. The inspirational images of gender solidarity in Tahrir Square in the early days of the revolution quickly gave way to ugly episodes of targeted harassment. A hastily planned demonstration on March 8, International Women’s Day, attracted a few hundred women but was marred by angry men shoving the protesters and yelling at them to go home, saying their demands for rights are against Islam. Around the same time, the Egyptian military rounded up scores of women demonstrators and, in a show of raw intimidation, subjected many of them to "virginity tests." On the political level, women have been excluded from major decision-making bodies since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and it appears that few, if any, will win seats in the ongoing parliamentary elections. Their low success rate was not helped by the military’s decision to eliminate a Mubarak-era quota ensuring women 64 seats. This was a setback for women’s political participation, even though the quota enjoyed little credibility because it had been used to reward Mubarak loyalists.

The strong showing of Islamists parties in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections has women’s groups worried. The ultraconservative Salafi groups, which took a surprising 20 percent of the vote, openly question a modern role for women in society. One Salafi leader refused to appear on a political talk show on television until the female host put on a headscarf. Another denounced the military government’s requirement to include women on electoral lists as "evil," though Emad Abdel-Ghafour, head of al-Nour, the leading Salafi party, stated that the party does accept women candidates. Yet the Salafi women who did run demurred from showing their pictures on campaign materials, instead replacing their faces with pictures of flowers; moreover, the party deliberately clustered them at the bottom of its lists, making them unlikely to win seats. One Salafi sheikh recently issued an opinion that women should not wear high-heeled shoes in public. Along with Salafi statements of intent to ban alcohol and limit beach tourism, these swipes at women unnerve liberals.

Yet liberals have not been stalwarts of women’s rights in Egypt either. The 2000 decision to grant women the right to no-fault divorce (prior to this, they had to jump over the onerous legal hurdle of proving abuse or abandonment) was denounced not only by Islamist groups but by secular ones too — for undermining the family. Other changes to the personal-status laws in the past decade that have benefited women, particularly an expansion of custody rights, are coming under increasing attack. Critics discredit the reforms by derisively calling them "Suzanne’s Laws," after Suzanne Mubarak. They claim the laws were intended to accommodate the wealthy friends of the former first lady, and they blame those statutes for a rise in the country’s divorce rate. Given the criticism of these laws from all sides of the political spectrum, it is likely that they will be amended by the new parliament, and not to women’s benefit.

Women seem to be faring better in Tunisia. Liberals and secularists have been deeply wary of the rise of al-Nahda, the country’s leading Islamist party, warning that it could mean a reversal of women’s rights. Since the 1950s, Tunisian women have enjoyed the most expansive legal rights in the region, including relatively progressive marriage and divorce laws and access to birth control and abortion. Since returning to Tunisia in the beginning of this year, Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda’s leader, has strived to convince Tunisians that his party will not seek to change the country’s personal-status laws. Some, however, have accused al-Nahda of obfuscating its real intentions behind moderate rhetoric — a charge that did not prevent the party from surging to victory with 41 percent of the vote in October’s election. Thanks to electoral rules requiring favorable placement of women on party lists, women gained 23 percent of the seats in parliament, a higher share than in the U.S. Congress. Most of the women are from al-Nahda and will likely reflect their party’s traditional views on women, but their participation in such large numbers at least normalizes an active political role for women. Moreover, Ghannouchi and other al-Nahda leaders so far have been purposefully focused on efforts to jump-start the economy, produce jobs, and reassure foreign investors. Al-Nahda has forged a coalition with liberal parties, and to maintain that coalition, it will have to continue to focus on the economy and human rights rather than getting bogged down in divisive culture wars.

Ghannouchi seems to understand that while rolling back gains for women can score points among Islamic conservatives, ultimately al-Nahda will win or lose on economic grounds, and women are important economic actors. With high rates of literacy and relatively low fertility, women constitute nearly a third of Tunisia’s workforce. Economic reality simply demands a pragmatic approach toward women. Let’s hope that Ghannouchi can get that message through to his Islamist brothers across the region. Otherwise, Arab women might soon be channeling their Iranian sisters, who have complained that Iran’s Islamic Revolution has brought them little but poverty and polygamy.

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