Under the banner of “No Spring without Women,” a Lebanese feminist organisation has organized a march in Beirut, as part of the 5th New Arab Woman Forum. The slogan of the march is “Sawa Sawa”, which in this context means “Let's walk together, let's make it together”, calling for a Spring that includes both men and women.
Before getting the invitation to this march, my mind was already preoccupied with the future of Arab women after the revolutions and how women's status might be impacted in each of the Arab countries. My concern is: can there be Arab union or organisation to sustain Arab women's status in the post-revolution era?
Women in the Arab world have suffered in the revolutions, but the question now is, what will the outcome of all this suffering and sacrifice be? To date, the revolutions have not resulted in any improvement in women's status. In Egypt, there are now voices saying that women should leave the revolution to men, and during a demonstration on International Women's Day in March, men jeered at the women marching, telling them to go home and feed their babies.
On Dec. 21, 2011, women marched from Tahrir Square through the city, outraged by the image of a young woman kicked by troops and dragged along the ground. What's more, there are no women on the committee that has been tasked with drafting the new constitution, though many are qualified to be. Since the revolution, the women's quota in parliament has been abolished, which means there will be fewer women and their presence will barely make a difference.
Tunisian women have not suffered from the same abuses, but their legal position has not changed since the revolution. Tunisian women are trying to preserve their rights instead of winning new ones. One large party only, the Democratic Modernist Pole, has promised to install a woman as its leader.
Since the election of Islamist parties in some Arab countries, women have become skeptical about them and are worried that they might introduce discriminatory law against them once they gain complete power. Others are even suspicious about the women in these parties and consider them to be tools in the hands of men to fulfil their orders.
Women in other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, who are already struggling with religious leaders, are worried that sterner and discriminatory laws against women in the region will have a negative impact on the few rights they have recently gained through a decision by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to allow women to vote in municipal election and become members of the consultative Shura Council. Women in Kuwait are also struggling with Islamist members of parliament (MPs). While the emir has insisted on introducing female MPs, Islamist MPs have introduced segregation in Kuwait's universities.
Despite all these difficulties facing women, some think that women's rights should not be singled out from human rights more broadly and that they must become part of a wider movement among the general public. However, most women, even non-governmental organization workers, campaigners, lawyers and academics, are uncertain of the future of women after the revolutions.
The skepticism that women feel toward Islamist parties has not come out of the blue, but is based on the declarations of these parties themselves. I will focus here on Egypt, since it is the most populous and culturally radiant of the Arab countries and can have a huge impact on the Arab world, especially on issues related to women. Egypt now is more geared towards Sharia law and to a top-down transformation of society based on Islamic principles, with less focus on economic growth. The Al-Nour Party, which won 24 percent of the vote and 21 percent of the parliamentary seats, is Salafist and believes in implementing strict Sharia law, focusing on the obligation of women to wear the veil and on segregating the sexes in public. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won a startling 46 percent of seats with 37 percent of the vote. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood is considered more moderate than the Al-Nour Party, some Brothers describe themselves as Salafist in ideology, making it difficult for women, liberal Egyptians, and Coptic Christians to see any difference between rival Islamists.
Most of these Islamist parties convinced people to vote for them by introducing themselves as exemplary of the Turkish model. In fact, the practice of these parties and their Islamic discourse are different from what has been practiced in Turkey by the Justice and Development Party (JDP). The JDP concentrates on a bottom-up model of a more civil and tolerant approach to Islam, with an emphasis on economic growth. One of its main priorities is women's participation in the labor force, public life and politics.
The JDP is also committed to gender equality in the eyes of the law. The JDP has promised to support women's civil society organizations that address the sexual and economic exploitation of women, as well as violence against women, including honor crimes. Even the JDP's monetary allowance to poor families for their children's education is given to mothers rather than fathers, and the amount is greater for girls than boys.
On the other hand, Islamist parties in Egypt focus on banning alcohol, adopting the veil and segregating the sexes in public because they want people to go to heaven. The Islamist parties in Egypt reminded me of what Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said about the Muslims' situation – that Muslims are too easily distracted by trivialities, so they forget their bigger problems and responsibilities. Muslims focus on trivial issues, such as Islamic dress, and ignore serious matters, like economics and information technology.
As the machinery of Islamist parties sweeps across the region, Arab women must think of establishing a union or organization to strengthen their rights, boost civil society and challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam. Since women's status in one Arab country, especially a large country like Egypt, affects how women are treated in other Arab countries, establishing such a union is crucial.
A top-down approach by way of Arab women's summits and organizations headed by first ladies without any timeframe for a project's or initiative's execution, as happened before the revolutions, is inadequate and ineffective. In order for new unions and summits to not be a complete waste of time and money, a bottom-up approach with practical blueprints and deadlines for executing projects should be implemented. There must be a focus on politics, development, social networks, education, entrepreneurship, the law and use of the media.
Such organisations should not include only women, but also men who are experts in development, economics, politics, law and media. These unions or organizations must clarify that closing the gap between men and women in the labour force and more political participation is not only a women's rights issue, but is vital for a higher gross domestic product and will serve the countries' national security needs. The Arab Spring will not be a real Spring without women's participation.
(Najat Al-Saied is a Ph.D. researcher in media and development at University of Westminster. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)