Women’s gains in Arab Spring more mirage than miracle

  Dec 16, 2011 – 6:00 PM ET | Last Updated: Dec 16, 2011 3:43 PM ET

Chris Hondros/Getty Images/Files

Chris Hondros/Getty Images/Files

Women celebrate in Tahrir Square after it is announced that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was giving up power February 11, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.

By Janet Bagnall

In January, Egyptian women stunned the world when they took to the streets alongside men to topple the corrupt Mubarak regime. With their designer sunglasses and flowered scarves, they won the hearts of people around the world. They braved gunfire and withstood army-sanctioned “virginity tests.” From everywhere, people urged them on, hoping they would win freedom for themselves and democracy for their country.

Nearly a year later, the brilliant future for women the Arab Spring revolutions that swept across North Africa and the Middle East appeared to promise seems more mirage than miracle. In violence-torn Syria, women’s -rights activists are said to be in hiding. In October, hundreds of Yemeni women marched into San’a, the capital, burning their veils in protest against the government’s refusal to change. Women in Libya, which has not had a civil government in four decades, are struggling to get organized. Tunisian women, with more legal rights than any of their Arab sisters, are watching warily as an Islamist party takes over power. Already, there have been reports that unveiled students were refused entry into class.

In Egypt, with almost 82 million people, the Arab world’s most populous country, men and women lined up this month for hours to vote in the country’s first free elections since a military overthrow in 1952.

Yet despite the fact that 376 women ran for election — a third of all candidates — by the time voting is over in January there is a distinct possibility that no women will be elected.

Under Egypt’s dauntingly complex voting system, where a candidate’s name is placed on closed voting lists, pretty much guarantees either defeat or victory. The higher up on a list the candidate’s name appears, the greater his — or, more rarely, her — chances of success. In this election, the names of female candidates are uniformly very low down on the lists. Women’s rights activists argue this means the deck has been deliberately stacked against female candidates.

Egypt’s first-round election results earlier this month pointed to a government dominated by Islamists. The majority of them are described as moderate, but a smaller ultra-conservative faction, the Salafists, are anything but, and they won 25 per cent of the vote. They do not want women in public office. They have called for the implementation of Sharia law, segregation of the sexes and for women to cover up.


yptian women line up to vote in Giza, southwest Cairo, on December 14, 2011, during the second round of parliamentary voting. Voting stations have been segregated between men and women.

The second round of voting, on Wednesday, in more rural and conservative regions, is reinforcing the trend to an Islamist government.

The three-phase election process will elect a lower house of parliament, whose members will appoint a 100-member committee charged with drafting a new constitution. If, as expected, there are no women in parliament, there won’t be any women on the drafting committee, making it extremely unlikely that women’s rights will be part of the constitution.

Covered up and pushed aside, is this what awaits the women from Bahrain to Yemen who defied authority, withstanding physical and sexual abuse to demand their rights?

“No,” said Egyptian writer Sahar El Mougy, who stood in solidarity with thousands of fellow Cairo residents on Jan. 28 in Tahrir Square when the army fired rubber bullets at demonstrators and flooded the square with tear gas. “Taking part in the revolution is a statement that no political Islam can take away. Never. Not in this lifetime.”

El Mougy said she is “not one of those people who is getting panicked” by the election results, even though the winners are not “very amiable toward women.”

El Mougy is optimistic that however hard the two Islamist parties pretend to be democratic and talk about health care, education, women’s rights and the need to eradicate poverty, their true nature will come out.

“Because it’s fake,” she said, “because it’s not true, I don’t think they can sustain the illusion. They’ll go back to their old patterns.”

The old patterns include denying women their personal and professional freedom, choking off artistic freedom, imposing censorship and rejecting democratic reforms.

El Mougy said she would love the “Muslim blocs” to revert to type, since by showing their true colours they would lose the supporters they have now. “People, no matter how illiterate, are not stupid.”

El Mougy said there was a “tragic flaw” in the transition from the early days of the revolution in Egypt — from, in her words, the “age of innocence” to today’s “age of wisdom.”

“In the delirium of toppling (former Egyptian president Hosni) Mubarak, we handed power to the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces).”

At that point in the transition of power, women’s rights should have been part of the equation, said Nadya Khalife, Beirut-based researcher with the Women’s Rights Division for Human Rights Watch.

“I was there in Tahrir Square at the International Women’s Day protest,” said Khalife. “Thousands of women were there. They must have felt safe enough. They must have felt vocal enough to go out and protest. Women weren’t really doing anything but calling for democratic reforms and making sure that equality is part of the next Egypt. But they were attacked, they were sexually assaulted and they were slandered.

“As soon as a new government takes over, women’s participation in bringing down a government is basically over. You’re told to go back to your traditional role and unfortunately, that’s what we’ve seen in Egypt.”


Alia Hogben

Ottawa-based Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, admitted to being “cynical about what lies ahead.

“But,” she said, “I still think it’s remarkable that the women came forward. But I’m also old enough to remember that when Algeria was fighting for its independence (1954-62), a lot of women came forward, spectacular women. They were tortured by the French. They were heroines and everybody loved them, and as soon as independence came along, they were pushed back into the kitchen and home.”

For her part, Maysoun Faouri, director of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural Montreal support group, Concertation Femme, said it is unrealistic to expect that the patriarchal countries swept up in the Arab revolutions can change overnight.

“I was an engineer-architect in Syria,” she said. “All the women of my generation – I am 53 – were university graduates. We had access to education and also to jobs, but no political power.

“Where the conflict happened was with culture and tradition. Tradition will win out over the law, especially if there are people who are above the law.”

Faouri says she thinks the economic downturn will ultimately benefit women. “Women have to work. Families can’t survive without their income. Men want their wives to work. This means the conditions are there to ensure that women continue to be active in society.

“These governments should realize that once people have stopped being afraid, they won’t stand for their rights being violated. If people don’t achieve their dream of freedom, they will be back in the streets.”

In Egypt, women and men were already back in the streets in mid-November, to protest against the army’s continued hold over the country’s governing powers. But with clashes even more violent than they were in January, women’s rights have been pushed further to the margins. Even joining an international protest proved too dangerous this fall. A coalition of women’s rights organizations in Egypt pulled out of the international campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. In a statement, the women said an orchestrated campaign of violence against them by the military and police forced them out.

“It is very difficult to push anything forward with regards to women’s rights at the moment,” said Khalife. “Everything has been put on hold in Egypt. Everyone is focused on the political process, on what the next parliament will look like and on what the new constitution will say.”

Nearly a year after the Arab Spring uprisings, there is little to point to in the way of achievements for women’s rights, said Khalife. “I can’t think of anything on the spur of the moment.”

Tunisia, where the Arab revolution started, is the one country where women have made inroads into political power. In the October election, 49 women were elected to the constituent assembly, taking 22 per cent of the 217 seats. The newly elected president, longtime rights activist Moncef Marzouki, this week promised Tunisians the right to education, health care and employment, and equal rights for women.

Tunisia has long been different from other Arab countries, Khalife said. Women are protected by personal status laws, which first came into effect in 1956. Polygamy was outlawed; divorce made legal; marriage could be entered into only with the agreement of both parties. The law was further strengthened in 1993, with the institution of alimony payments and their strict enforcement. Rigorous prosecution of domestic violence was also part of the amendment.

“For Tunisian women, the personal status law is really something like their bible. They didn’t want anyone to touch it. It gave them gender parity. The prospect of losing it galvanized women into action.”

Other countries, such as Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, are still “at a formative stage” when it comes to women’s rights, said Khalife. “They are still putting the building blocks together. They don’t have the advantage of the Tunisian women.”

Inside Egypt, Sahar El Mougy refuses to yield to pessimism. “I know the revolution is being cornered, stabbed and beaten,” she said, “but still, it’s making the 10 to 15 per cent of Egyptians who participated in the revolution tougher. When the time is right — when people have realized how stupid the people who are running the country are – (the revoluntionaries) will be back on the streets.”

Postmedia News


An Egyptian woman speaks on a mobile phone in a parliamentary polling station in Cairo on November 29, 2011. Egypt hailed the start of its first post-revolution election as a triumph for democracy as more voters headed to the polls, boosting turn-out for a vote that had looked in doubt last week

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  1. Pingback: Arab Spring, DUH? | Boudica BPI Weblog

  2. “Wherever there is a resurgence of Sharia, tolerance suffers, and harassment and abuse increase. ”

    And after available non-muslims, muslim women are always the first choice for victimization.

  3. The best thing that could happen in Libya and all Islamic countries where the males want to implement Sharia Law is to take all the women out of those sick countries and leave all the males to play with themselves and or all the Donkeys left behind. WOMEN IN ALL THESE ISLAMIC COUNTRIES ESCAPE FROM THIS MALE DOMINANT ISLAMIC TYRANNY FOR YOUR LIFE. GOD HELP THOSE POOR WOMEN THAT CONTINUE AND WILL BE TORTURED IN THE NEAR FUTURE BY THIS MALE DOMINANT SHARIA LAW.

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