Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Has the Arab Spring Truly Benefited Women Thus Far?

By Evita Mouawad

Women show the flags of Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Libya painted on their palms
in the southern city of Taiz, December 2011.Credit: Reuters/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Of all the revolutions witnessed during the Arab Spring, the Tunisian transition was considered to be by far the most promising. Compared to Egypt, which endured harsh military rule for 18 months after the fall of Mubarak, Tunisia’s political change came relatively swiftly, and in October 2011, a new Constituent Assembly was elected and charged with rewriting the constitution. Women also gained an estimated 23 percent of seats in the new assembly, surpassing a great number of neighboring countries in the region.

Tunisia was often described as one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries, but it also has a long history of friction over the role of religion in society. Secular voters were especially alarmed when Ennahda, a formerly-banned Islamic party, won 41% of the total vote in the first free elections in some 25 years since Ben Ali took power by military coup.

Wary of the world’s skepticism towards Islamists at the time, the party presented itself as a modern and democratic Muslim party and looked toward the Turkish political system as a possible model to follow. Even though Ennahda has expressed support for women's rights and gender equality, the party only appointed two women in top positions. Their most famous female member, Souad Abdel Rahim, often portrayed by the media as a modern Muslim woman, has repeatedly stated that Ennahda will never suppress women’s rights by legalizing polygamy or rendering the headscarf mandatory.

Nonetheless, recent developments in Tunisia have sparked angry demonstrations. Thousands of women took to the streets of Tunis last week to protest an article from the draft of the new constitution. The proposed legislation describes women as complementary to men in the family and associates to men in the development of the country. Activists fear this new wording could lead to a decline in women’s rights in the future, some of them are even demanding that the language from the 1956 constitution be used instead, as it holds men and women equal.

Tunisian women demonstrating against gender inequality article
from draft of new constitution, August 2012

As for the other emerging Arab Spring democracies, Libya and Egypt are also facing challenges when it comes to women’s rights and their integration in the new political systems. Last month in Libya, women gained an estimated 33 seats out of 80 party seats. This awarded them with approximately 17 percent of the National Assembly, which is far more promising than the mere 2 percent of seats that women are currently holding in Egypt’s new parliament. Nonetheless, the Libyan women’s victory was largely due to quotas that were set during the elections. Some analysts have even argued that women would have never gotten this much representation if election regulations favoring them were not introduced.

It remains to be seen whether the women who have stepped foot into these transitional governments will truly have decision-making power, especially when it comes to advancing women’s status in their countries. However, the most important result of the Arab revolutions remains that the women who led them have realized the influence they can have on their governments and societies, and are henceforth prepared to make their strident voices heard when their rights are at risk.

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