Women were active in the demonstrations leading to the ouster of presidents Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. They were members of committees set up to protect neighborhoods and protest sites. Thousands joined their male counterparts in marches against authoritarian governments. The pro-democracy movements in both these countries included women's equality in the principles they espoused, along with democracy, and religious tolerance. However, once the protest phase ended and the transitional political processes began, women were sidelined. Women activists feel that their voices and their calls for equality were ignored.
Human Rights Watch met with women's rights activists in Tunisia and Egypt. They told us that emerging political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and An-Nahda in Tunisia pose specific challenges for the advancement of women's rights in these countries. The Muslim Brotherhood has said that it will not nominate a woman or Coptic Christian as a presidential candidate but is not opposed to allowing for that possibility in the constitution. In Tunisia, women's rights activists are calling for the review of some provisions to the personal status code to make sure that they ensure equal rights, to inheritance for example. But an An-Nahda spokesman, Amin Belhaj, said publicly on March 10, 2011 that his party sees no need for such a review because the Qur'an is clear on matters of equality between men and women, and on inheritance.
Women's rights activists in both countries are preparing for upcoming elections. In Tunisia, elections for a constituent assembly are scheduled for October 23, and in Egypt, parliamentary elections are to be held in September and presidential elections in December. It is vitally important for the international community to help support women's rights to political participation to ensure that women are represented in the decision-making processes. At the same time, there is a real opportunity to address women's human rights and to call for the repeal of legal provisions that discriminate against women.