Why Women Must Be at the Heart of Phase II of the Arab Spring

Date: Nov 2012

“There are two steps in a revolution: You break it and then you build something new. That’s the hardest, “ says Mabrouka M’barek, a newly elected member of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly.

M’barek, a “founding mother” birthed in the Arab Spring, is engaged in drafting the country’s new constitution. She is one of the 49 women in a 217 Assembly in Tunisia that ironically boasts of exceeding the female representation ratio in the U.S. Congress.

This is a big change. In the Arab world, women have lagged far behind as leaders in politics and business. This has largely and adversely affected progress and development as reported both by the World Economic Forum and the United Nations Development Program.

One thing is clear: There is a huge upside value in educating women and including them in our economies and governments. Women understand the plight of the underprivileged men, women and children — yet, they are often excluded from participating in key decisions-making roles. The revolutions in the Middle East offer a chance to change this equation. It’s a critical time. Yet the traditional approach — tokenism — is a demonstrated failure.

Some Paradoxes that Struck Me:

  • In Libya, women hold 33 seats in parliament but women have been excluded from “serious decision making.” Their concerns have often been relegated to the back burner. Women have also been dissuaded from pursuing careers considered “too successful,” says Alaa Murabit, the founder of Voice of Libyan Women.
  • In the Syrian opposition front based outside Syria, and just being recognized by European governments, not a single woman is included.
  • But it is in Egypt, the biggest Arab nation, where the real battle lines on the drafting of the new constitution have been drawn between secularists and Islamists. Egypt could well be the hallmark of the Arab Spring as time evolves. Today it seems to be firmly caught betwixt and between the old and new world order.
The pivotal issues in Egypt are women’s rights, the role of religion in a democracy and the expression of faith. The key questions on women’s rights are: Will marriage and inheritance be tied to Shariah law or will Islamists who want gender segregation and veiling prevail? The new draft of the constitution will be ready on December 12 and this will replace the 1971 charter.A thorny but significant issue in Egypt is the future of Al Azhar, a highly respected institution of religious learning, dating from ninth century Cairo. Muslims globally view Al Azhar as the leader of Islamic scholarship upholding moderate Islam — and therefore could become a political football between secularists and Islamists.In drafting the new constitution, the ultraconservatives made two requests — the first to replace the “principles of sharia” with the “rulings of sharia” or even just sharia; and the second to consider “Al Azhar as the new State reference for the interpretation of sharia.” Both suggestions were rejected by the assembly’s liberal members, who fear that Al-Azhar — which today represents a moderate Islam — could one day be used to limit freedoms should it fall under the control of ultraconservatives.This would “effectively create a legislative vetting role for an unelected, unaccountable body with no recourse to judicial review,” says Human Rights Watch. Consider how this might impact Hend Badawi, a 23 year old young woman from Banha, Egypt. Fashionably but conservatively dressed, Badawi is a student who was pushed, pulled, dragged, groped and cursed as she protested in Tahrir Square. With a broken wrist, fingers and lacerated feet, she was moved to a military hospital 12 hours later and she reflects: “When the January 25th (revolution) happened, I had the opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country.” Later when Field Marshall Mohammad Tantawi, Egypt’s de-facto ruler at the time, visited her in the hospital, she said: “We are not the ones who are the thugs….. Get out!” This emboldened her and gave her some serenity.

Nehad Abou el Kosam, co-founder of Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights identifies the high bar facing women: “Women’s issues are at the core of the Islamist movement.” How will Egyptian women navigate around the Islamists being grounded in an anti-women agenda? That is the key question.
Hate vs. Hope for Arab women?

When these Egyptian women were asked if the revolution has helped women, Hana said “Yes”, Samar said “Not yet,” and Badawi said, “Absolutely not.” Mona Altahawy, the fiercely outspoken Egyptian American journalist who was beaten by security forces in Cairo during the revolution says: “Arab societies hate women.” Yet, the Arab spring has allowed Muslim girls and women to dream big dreams as Ms Murabit of Libya says: “For young girls to now tell me that they want to be the future president, minister of defense, these are things I never imagined.” But Eltawahy believes there’s another link for women between politics and the home front: “They realize if they can stand up to Mubarak, they can stand up to their fathers and their mothers and their brothers.” “For societies to transform from repressed dictatorships to healthy democracies, key ingredients are needed says Anne Applebaum, author of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. These include patriotism, historical consciousness, education, ambition, optimism and especially patience. The destruction wrought by totalitarian governments always takes decades to repair.” Revolutions are often a two step dance – break and build and the building is a s-l-o-w process.

So if we are at the second step of the Arab revolutions – the building process – and if we understand that the perspective of women is essential to build modern, progressive, tolerant cultures and political systems, how do we measure whether the steps being taken to include women are going to get the job done?

Research by Tali Mendelberg and Christopher F. Karpowitz shows that “female representation matters, but only when there’s parity with men.” The key according to this study is that “women speak up less or appear to lose influence when they are in a minority….. but once they constitute 60-80% of a group, they spoke as much as men…” The authors conclude that women in legislatures, city councils and school boards speak more and highlight the needs of the underprivileged – the poor, the vulnerable, children and families – and men listen.”

So one of the biggest handicaps facing the Arab revolutions is that they are unlikely to provide adequate voice to the perspectives represented by women – and that isn’t just a problem for women.

“Women are our best hope for highlighting the needs of the 99 percent,” say Mendelberg and Karpowitz. Maybe some things are more universal than we think.

Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin’s blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist

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