Three Arab revolutions and three dictators ousted: Will democracy root, will women thrive?

Date: July 2012

Tunisia, Libya and Egypt — Three robust Arab revolutions erupted in three countries with common Mediterranean histories, geographies and culture. In the aftermath of three dictators — Ben Ali of Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Hussein Mubarak of Egypt — these countries now have a shot at democracy. However, it will be complicated by a triptych — women’s place and power, faith politics and economics.

One thing is crystal clear: Women are central to the discourse on how democracy develops in the Middle East and North Africa region post revolution. The opportunities afforded to women will shape the political and socio-economic contours in their countries.

Who steps up to create and fund civil society institutions, and champion women’s strategic engagement and leadership? Will Arab women participate in shaping the new societies with their male brethren? Who will erase road blocks and pave the highways of opportunity for women to access education, embark on new careers and enter the work force in their communities?

Many questions, fewer answers — while we wait to see if and how democracy takes root in a fluctuating Arab world.

What the polls highlight:
The Gallup report, “After the Arab Uprisings: Women on Rights, Religion, and Rebuilding” found:

Voices from the region:

will_women_thrive_one Farida Lebidi — Islamist and a lawyer in Tunis. Lebidi is a member of the Ennahda party elected to the newly constituted assembly. Twenty years ago, Lebidi was a law student, thwarted from taking her exams and taken prisoner for her political activism. Today, Lebidi leads the team, drafting “rights and liberties” in the new constitution. Lebidi, an Islamist, believes that adultery should be a capital offense.

Alaa Murabit — Libyan activist and founder of the Voice of Libyan Women (VLW) remembers how, under Gaddafi, “men felt they could harass and marginalize women with no consequences.” Today, women’s groups trying to acquire more rights for themselves are often thwarted by conservative traditions.

image Zahra Langhi — Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace: “We have a patriarchal culture” “It’s not a matter of just changing legislation; we need a cultural and educational revolution.”

The women’s rights landscape is further complicated by women who criticize activists as being anti-Islamic and secular — even as they pursue emancipation. Yet, there is hope in the fact that 625 women contested in the Libyan election on July 7. Of the 2.7 million people registered to vote, 45 percent are female.

Mona Eltawahy , an Egyptian writer and journalist, who resides in New York, could not stand to watch the heartbreaking events of the revolution unfurling at Tahrir Square. So she landed herself in the midst of the revolution in Cairo — only to have the riot police beat her, break her right hand and left arm — and subsequently release her. Mona Eltawahy, sometimes controversial, made waves when she wrote the article “Why Do They Hate Us?” in Foreign Policy, highlighting regressive attitudes towards Arab women.,1

(Ramzi Haidar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

“I’m a feminist,… I never imagined they would beat a woman this bad,” said Ms. Eltahawy. “But it wasn’t me they were beating up, it was Tahrir. Our bodies now are stages or substitutes for Tahrir, and they extract this revenge on our bodies for what we did, for the walls we broke down.”
Eltahawy is now focused on the constitution: “Women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion, can and must be protected.” She is concerned with all the jostling around by Islamist purists wanting to include Shariah law in the constitution and determine which other faiths should be recognized by the new constitution.

My friend Iman Bibars, Vice President of Ashoka in Egypt and a long time feminist and activist who was in the thick of the Tahrir square revolution says: “I am worried and not happy with the disrespect that was shown initially to the decisions of the constitutional court. I am also alarmed that, to date, we have no economic plan while the economic situation is deteriorating” and finally, she says: “we don’t have a strong or unified or mature secular voice to balance the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic voices”

imageThese five brave Arab women – like so many other women – were fully engaged in the Arab revolutions. They put their bodies on the line and now they are engaged in the constitutional battle for equalizing the playing field for women and men. They are striving for an egalitarian civil society where rights, freedom, education and empowerment is the birth right of every man and woman.

Is democracy and women’s effective participation in Egypt and other Arab countries a fantasy? NO. Can this become a reality? YES. Will there be road bumps along the way? YES as well.

Given my own experience with women’s rights in India, I can attest to the fact that the best laws on the books, but without implementation have minimum impact. My hope is that the Arab revolutionaries can create a new impact driven constitutional imprint to create a democracy, advancing civil society and the economic empowerment of women.

I cast my vote for a new world vision for Arab men and women – who were brave to put their bodies, minds and souls on the front lines. I hope that their courageous efforts will result in a new and egalitarian world – which values faith but also respects other religions. Inclusion of women at all levels of the social and economic spectrum is a prerequisite for progress. Women helped make the first wave of the revolutions – only their full engagement will yield the fruits that both men and women sought in the streets.

Shahnaz 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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