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Will the Arab revolutions lead to women's empowerment?

Activists fear status of Arab women could suffer even as opportunities arise for improvement

Screaming to be heard
Image Credit: Reuters
Syrian women shout slogans against Bashar Al Assad duringa demonstration. Women have participated as equals in theArab Spring revolutions but their future remains uncertain.
Gulf News

Dubai: The Arab spring is not blooming for Arab women.

Women activists are concerned that many of their initial hopes have been dashed by the way events have panned out in some countries so far.

The transformations could take away many accomplishments made by women, they fear, or at best keep them right where they are today.

At the same time, others believe it is "difficult" to predict the impact of the revolutions on the status of Arab women, as political changes in many Arab countries are still ongoing processes.

"I think in terms of women's political voice and power, it is has been very exciting to see how women have been on the forefront of some of the Arab spring campaigns for democracy in the region," commented Laura Turquet, lead author of a recently-released report on women in the world by the UN's women's organisation.

High participation

A high presence of women in protests calling for change which swept several Arab countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, has raised big hopes of the introduction of more freedoms for women and equality between the sexes in male-dominated Arab societies, according to women activists.

But when the regimes were changed in the two north African Arab countries of Tunisia and Egypt, "a general view began to emerge as if the people who were demanding freedom, democracy and equality, were only men and no women were involved".

Rabea Naciri, a Moroccan woman activist, said: "Therefore, my assessment — and that of my comrades in a number of countries — is that there is not much optimism in the way things are going.

"It seems that women's issues, equality and eliminating discrimination are not on the agenda of reforms in many countries."

"It is possible to bring down political systems, but you can't bring down a patriarchal system," Rabea said in reference to the deeply-rooted social norms and the powerful role of men in the family.

The way ahead is still a rocky and a long one for Arab women, and the democratic, legal and progressive movements in the Arab countries have a "very big responsibility", Rabea said. It is about time for them to take "clear positions" vis-a-vis women's rights, she believed.

"Many Arab countries now stand at the crossroads. Either the revolutions will make us move forward, or we will return to the positions we were in before the revolutions," the former Moroccan university professor said while speaking to Gulf News.

Tunisia presents an example of the strong battles that women there have to be involved in.

In the past, the Tunisian woman enjoyed a "relatively advanced position" among Arab women. However, after the revolution, some loud voices called for women to return to their homes, women activists noted.

Fighting for a voice

But in order to maintain previously gained rights, women groups "have won a campaign in order to have a [50 per cent] quota for women's representation in politics," said Laura.

She was referring to the Tunisian women's efforts to have equal share of membership in the council assigned to draft the new constitution for the country.

"This doesn't mean that the same principle will apply to other local councils or the parliament [in the future] This is [an ongoing] battle," Rabea said.

In neighbouring Egypt, however, the picture doesn't seem that rosy so far.

Egyptian women played a major role in the January 25 revolution, whether through participating in street-level demonstrations or using their Facebook accounts and blogs to influence mas opinion.

"But Egyptian women say there isn't too much of a cause for optimism," Rabea said, adding that the commission assigned to draft the constitutional amendments, which were put for referendum last March, had no women members.

This is despite the fact that "they have many qualified women in Egypt", Rabea pointed out and named lawyer Tahani Al Jebali as an example.

Reform measures

In the past couple of years, Tahani has reached the highest position a woman ever has in Egypt: a judge at the Constitutional High Court.

While the regimes were changed in both Egypt and Tunisia, calls to introduce democratic reforms are sweeping the region.

Already, some other countries, including Morocco, have taken measures to meet the public demands.

On July 1, Moroccans overwhelmingly voted for the new constitutional amendments, which included "great things in favour of women's rights", Rabea said.

Among the positive amendments were the pledges to achieve equality and to "ban and eliminate discrimination according to gender", she pointed out.

But the "new thing was the [pledge for the establishment] of a constitutional commission to oversee all issues related to eliminating discrimination".

Nevertheless, Rabea said change, whether in Morocco or any other Arab country, depends on "the society's ability to change, and here the role of women's movements will be decisive".