MIDDLE EAST/NORTH AFRICA: The Arab Spring: For women, some achievements, many disappointments

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Human Rights Watch
Northern Africa
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Back in March, when I visited Tunisia and Egypt, I met some remarkable women, who told me that for the first time, they really felt Tunisian or Egyptian, and that they were so proud of what women and men had achieved together. It was a phenomenal time to be in Cairo and Tunis. On International Women's Day, I marched down to Tahrir Square, in Cairo, with about a hundred female activists, and felt so proud to be joining them. It meant a lot to them to go back to the same place that helped end decades of authoritarian rule to make the point that citizenship and equality should be the values of a new Egypt. In Tunis, I met up with dozens of women at the Taher al-Haddad Club. This is where the Tunisian feminist movement was born, and I was so delighted to see women, young and old, debate their wishes for the future, and how to embark on fulfilling them. It was understood that women and men both felt ownership of these political transitions, and for women, the upheavals were only the beginning.

The change in the Arab world started in Tunisia, in January, and spread like wildfire across the Middle East and North Africa. Those who sought change complained of government repression, corruption, poverty, and ill-treatment.

The upheavals were not instigated by men alone, but included women who were equally fed up with decades of authoritarian rule, and who wished to live freely. There are many striking pictures from Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and most recently Libya, of women demonstrating alongside men for basic human rights.

Some women's rights activists hoped and believed that the end of repressive governments in Egypt and Tunisia would also bring women's equality and freedom. But it became clear that there was little room for women to join the decision-making bodies defining transitional political processes that would help shape their futures. The harsh reality is that women continue to be marginalized, and their rights -- instead of being recognized as a critical component of reform processes intended to democratize these countries -- are seen as of secondary importance and, in some cases, as bargaining chips.

There is some reason to be positive, though. In Tunisia, some progress is being made. And while the current political climate in Egypt may seem to be threatening the advancement of women's rights, women's rights activists continue their efforts to improve the status of women.

Tunisia leading the way

Tunisian women's rights activists have already secured two significant victories: gender parity in the October 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly, and the withdrawal of key reservations by the previous government to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Important concerns remain, but these are hopeful signs of positive things to come.

The gender parity electoral law, which requires equal numbers of male and female candidates, was a breakthrough for women's political representation in Tunisia. But the candidate lists of political parties did not include women at the top of them. Since the seats go to party members starting at the head of the list, this almost guarantees that most of those elected will be men. This is especially significant because the Assembly's most important task will be to write Tunisia's next constitution

It is critical for the new constitution to include strong and effective guarantees of women's rights. Tunisian women's activists have called for a guarantee of gender equality in the new constitution as the legal basis for ensuring that future laws do not discriminate between women and men, and for amending or revoking current discriminatory laws.

With regard to CEDAW, on August 16 Tunisia's Council of Ministers voted to lift all key reservations to the convention, making Tunisia the first country in the region to do so. Tunisian women's rights activists have called for the withdrawal of reservations to the CEDAW treaty since at least 2005. CEDAW prohibits gender discrimination in the family and in education and health and defines a national action plan for governments to follow for ending all forms of discrimination against women.

This remarkable development means that Tunisia has agreed it will provide women with equal rights to nationality and equality within the family in matters of marriage, divorce, and custody. But Tunisia still maintains a general declaration to the Convention, stating that it will not pass any legislation that may be considered contradictory to Article 1 of its Constitution, which establishes Islam as the state religion. This will continue to make it difficult to change some laws, such as inheritance law, if they are considered to be inconsistent with Islamic Shari'a law. Undoubtedly, this declaration should also be abrogated, as no state should use its own constitution to justify non-compliance with international legal standards.

Tunisia and Egypt have yet to sign and ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, otherwise known as the Maputo Protocol. The Protocol guarantees significant rights for girls and women.

Egyptian women pressing for equality

Egypt's January 25th uprising, which led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, did not succeed through the efforts of men alone. In fact, women were as instrumental as men in mobilizing people to join the protests to demand an end to Mubarak's rule. For 18 days, women stayed in Cairo's Tahrir Square, vowing to remain there until their demands for justice and democracy were met. But, after Mubarak was finally ousted, women seemed no longer welcome to participate in the deliberations to map out the country's future, or to continue to press their demands for equality.

Women expected that they would have a greater say in Egypt's post-Mubarak future, as ministers, politicians, and decision-makers. But signs of a shift in attitude from the heady days of January and February came on International Women's Day on March 8, when women's rights activists took their demands for equality to Tahrir Square. Although some women had experienced sexual harassment in Tahrir Square during the last days before Mubarak was ousted, the hostility toward women during the March 8 march was clearly different. The women who came to Tahrir that day were subjected even more strongly to verbal abuse and, in some cases, sexual and physical assault and harassment.

I talked with a woman passerby who was with her two small daughters, and asked her what she thought of the march. She responded, to my surprise, that this was not the right time for women to demand their rights, that there were far more pressing issues and priorities for Egypt to deal with. Unfortunately, many people seem to agree with her, not realizing that democracy needs to include equality and rights for everyone. Women's equality cannot be separated from the overall process of democratization in Egypt.

In another discouraging sign, women were excluded from the official eight-member body that the military tasked with formulating amendments to the constitution, amendments that were approved by referendum on March 19. Those amendments established a term limit for future presidents, provided for the appointment of a deputy president, and called for judicial oversight of elections. Only one female minister was appointed to the new interim government, however. Not only was this a big disappointment for the women's movement, but this minister was a long-serving minister under Mubarak.

In July, when interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf reshuffled the cabinet, he reappointed the same female minister but no other women.

Egypt's parliamentary elections are slated to take place between November and early January, and the new parliament is to rewrite the constitution. Women need an effective guarantee of full equality in the new constitution that will also apply to their rights under personal status codes derived from religious laws for Muslims and Coptic Christians. Whether this happens will undoubtedly depend on which political parties have the most influence in the parliament. Some analysts anticipate that Islamists will form the strongest opposition block. This is likely to mean that any attempts to reform Shari'a-based family laws and replace them with a non-discriminatory civil code will fare poorly.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's ruling military council, provided in article 7 of its March 30 Constitutional Declaration, a transitional document that temporarily replaced the 1971 constitution, for equality before the law and a prohibition of discrimination based on gender. The next parliament should ensure that this provision is included in the new constitution as well, and ensure that equality remains a fundamental principle that all laws and state practices must comply with.

Whether Islamists, moderates, or liberals come to dominate Egyptian politics, the goal of the popular movement that overthrew Mubarak was to advance people's rights, and to democratize Egypt, and this cannot happen without the inclusion of women.

In drafting a new electoral law, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces scrapped a 2009 Mubarak-era law that mandated a 64-seat quota for women, which had little backing and provided little effective clout for women. Almost all the women who served in parliament through the quota were members of Mubarak's political party.

Instead, the new electoral law will require that each party list at least one woman on their party lists in the parliamentary elections, which will consist of 70 percent party lists and 30 percent individual candidates. But it is too soon to tell whether even liberal parties that embrace women's rights, and include women on their decision-making bodies, will put their female candidates toward the top of their list. Their primary goal will be to win seats in the face of stiff competition from former ruling party candidates, and a strong Islamist block. Unless the parties make including women a priority, there is a strong possibility that Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliament will have hardly any women.

Recognizing the long battle ahead, a group of women's rights organizations have formed a coalition to push for the inclusion of strong women's rights protections in the new constitution. The initiative, “Let's Write Our Constitution-Dreams of Egyptian Women,” seeks equality under the new constitution with regard to women's political participation, employment, education, health care, and personal freedoms.

The road to achieving full equality in Egypt may be long and treacherous. In the short term, women's participation in decision-making processes, and efforts to achieve greater social equality for all Egyptians, may bring women closer to fulfilling their human rights.

Women across the region, from Libya to Yemen, to Syria and Bahrain, are all taking part in the political struggles facing their countries. Everyone has taken notice of these women, demonstrating alongside men, and in some countries women were harassed, beaten, verbally insulted, and some even killed. As these countries make these significant transitions, it is so important for women to be part of this process, and not excluded as if their rights are completely distinct from other rights.

Disappointments, but some hope

The Arab Spring and the revolutionary spirit that came with it were viewed by women's rights activists as an opportunity to make progress on much-needed rights and freedoms for women in the Middle East and North Africa. But instead of incorporating women's rights as part of a democratization process in which every citizen has certain rights and obligations, the post-upheaval period has disappointed women. Women's rights activists have realized that they still have to fight to have their demands taken seriously. They have formed coalitions to press their interests. In Egypt, they outlined their wishes in a National Charter on Women's Rights, and in both Egypt and Tunisia they formulated examples of what an egalitarian constitution might look like. They continue to place women's rights issues at the centre of current political debates, and insist that their voices also count.

Despite the unwillingness of transitional governments in Egypt and Tunisia to consider the women's rights agenda as part of a nation-building process, the Arab Spring did result in a few achievements, especially for Tunisia's women. I feel some of the same hope I felt marching and talking with the women of Egypt and Tunisia in March. Egyptian women continue to struggle daily to make their demands known, and with time, the road to achieving full equality may be realized.