Does freedom for Arab men also mean freedom for Arab women?
Image by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP
Arab Women Rising: An Uncertain Future
Audie Cornish interviews Isobel Coleman
National Public Radio, transcript
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: 2011 was a year of protests across the Middle East and North Africa. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt ousted long-ruling dictatorships and each of those countries is now in the process of rebuilding their government. During the protests and in the weeks and months after each uprising, women were visible, fighting not just for the rights of their country but in many cases for rights of their own. But amid the recent images of an Egyptian woman stripped down to her bra and beaten by military police in Tahrir Square, there is some anxiety that the overthrow of these governments may not be all good news for women. Isobel Coleman is the director of the women and foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She joins us from New York. Welcome, Isobel.
ISOBEL COLEMAN: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: Now, you recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine entitled “Is Arab Spring Bad for Women?” That raises questions about whether women were better off before the ouster of some of these dictators. Do you believe they were?
COLEMAN: Well, it – look, it’s a provocative headline, which I’m all for provocative headlines. Personally, I think that men and women are better off under freer societies. But it does raise some interesting issues about women’s rights because democracy in that part of the world, as we’ve already seen, is bringing to the forefront Islamic parties. And many of these Islamic parties do have very conservative notions about women and their role in society. And it will create complications for women and could, in some case, roll back rights that women already enjoy.
CORNISH: Of course, each country’s situation is unique. And are there instances where women are faring better than their Arab counterparts elsewhere; and why is that?
COLEMAN: Well, Tunisia has always been at the forefront of women and women’s rights in the Arab world. Ennahda, which is the leading Islamist party, won a plurality of votes and has earned the right to form a government. But they’ve been very careful to acknowledge that women’s rights are a fact of life in Tunisia. It’s been part of the fabric of society for decades in that country. Tunisia was the first country in 1956 to grant women many rights that women in the West didn’t even have at that time. You saw women have access to even abortion in Tunisia years before they had legal access to that in other countries in the West. And although there are conservative elements within Ennahda and, of course, within other Islamist parties in Tunisia that would like to see, I think, some of the existing laws that are to the benefit of women rolled back in that country, Ennahda itself has say we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to change the laws as they relate to women.
CORNISH: So, how is that different from, say, an Egypt where in the first round of elections you do see strong performance from Islamist parties who are eyeing a rollback in some ways for women’s rights?
COLEMAN: In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has got the majority of the votes among Islamist parties that got the most votes. But the next in line is Al Nour, which is a Salafi party, which is very, very conservative. They were required to have women on their party lists, but they spoke out against that and said it’s against Islam for women to run for office. They did field female candidates because they were required to do so, but the women who ran on their party lists didn’t even show their face. They replaced their photographs with a picture of a flower in most cases.
CORNISH: One thing that interests me about your article is you pointed out this idea that there has been a complex relationship between sort of pro-women’s movements in countries like Egypt and the previous regimes.
COLEMAN: Well, that’s another complicated factor. These previous, you know, deeply-discredited illegitimate regimes from before – Ben Ali in Tunisia; Mubarak in Egypt – that the women’s rights agenda was co-opted by those regimes and was closely associated with the first ladies in both of these countries. And today, you know, you see a bit of a backlash against that. In Egypt, you have groups claiming that the laws that are in place that are to the benefit of women today that deal with personal status laws – things like marriage, divorce, custody, things that touch people’s everyday lives – you’ve heard people saying that they need to be rolled back, need to be changed because they are, quote, “Suzanne Mubarak’s laws” and therefore illegitimate.
CORNISH: Isobel, many may think that this is the first time in history that women are so publicly standing up for their rights in the region. But, of course, there’s a long history of women fighting for political freedoms, and can you talk about how this revolution and the role for women in this revolution differs from the Arab feminists of the past?
COLEMAN: Women marched in Tahrir Square back in 1919, 1920 against the British. They were very instrumental in bringing out, you know, the crowds against the British. And what is different today though, I think, is you see much more of a mass mobilization of women. You have much higher levels of education and engagement of women. Across the region now, women make up a majority of college graduates. And in some countries, it’s not by a small amount, it’s by a large amount. In Libya, for example, women almost double the number of men at the university level. It’s a very different situation than 100 years ago where you had just a small elite group of women who were out protesting and being activists. You know, today, you see it up and down throughout society. And women are engaged both physically – marching in the streets, they’re engaged as bloggers, they’re engaged in all different ways in the unrest that’s going on. And it’s a genie that I don’t think can be put back in that bottle.
CORNISH: Isobel Coleman. She’s with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Paradise beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.” Isobel, thanks so much for being with us.
COLEMAN: Thank you for having me.
Palestinian mother joins in weekly protests outside the Red Cross, calling for the basic right to visit their loved ones in Israeli prisons. Many have gone 7 or more years without being allowed to see their imprisoned loved ones.
From In Gaza
Is the Arab Spring Bad for Women?
Overthrowing male dominance could be harder than overthrowing a dictator.
By Isobel Coleman, Foreign Policy
In many ways, 2011 has been the Year of the Arab Woman. From the earliest days of upheaval that started in Tunisia last December, women have been on the front lines of protest, leading public demonstrations, blogging passionately, covering the unrest as journalists, launching social media campaigns, smuggling munitions, and caring for the wounded. This month, when Tawakkol Karman became the first Arab woman to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, she gave an enthusiastic shout-out to her many Arab sisters who have struggled “to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men.”
Across the region, though, Arab women are grumbling that overthrowing dictators is proving easier than overturning the pervasive supremacy of men. Gamila Ismail, a prominent Egyptian activist and politician, summed it up when she quit Egypt’s parliamentary race in disgust after learning that she would be put third on the list in her district — not a winning position. “We women had a very important role before, during, and after the revolution, and it does not work for us today, to accept this,” she complained in television. (She ran and narrowly lost as an independent candidate.) In Tunisia, disgruntled women activists have formed the October 24 Front to defend women’s rights in the aftermath of the Islamists’ electoral victory there. “We want a constitution that respects women’s rights and doesn’t roll back the advances we’ve made,” said one Tunisian protester.
Arab women are embattled on multiple fronts. First and foremost are the deep-seated patriarchal customs that constrain women. Patriarchy is certainly not unique to Arab lands, but it runs deep. It doesn’t help that for decades, the women’s rights agenda was closely associated with the now-discredited authoritarian regimes: Egypt’s Suzanne Mubarak ran a state-affiliated women’s NGO; Leila Ben Ali, Tunisia’s much-hated hairdresser-cum-first lady, was president of the Arab Women Organization, an intergovernmental body sponsored by the Arab League; and both Syria’s Asma al-Assad and Jordan’s Queen Rania have been active on women’s issues. The rise of politically empowered Islamist parties that contest existing laws for women on religious grounds also pose serious complications for women. Although women’s activism has clearly been important to the Arab revolts, there is no guarantee that women’s rights activists will be able to turn their engagement into longer-term economic, social, and political gains. In fact, in some countries, there is reason for concern that women will see their rights erode.
Libya is a case in point. At the ceremony marking Libya’s official liberation in October, one of the first announcements from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council, was that any laws that contradicted sharia would be annulled. He specifically mentioned that, going forward, polygamy would be legal, drawing cheers and celebratory gunfire from the mostly male crowd. Libyan women expressed surprise and disappointment and wondered why, with all of Libya’s pressing issues, reinstating polygamy should be on the front burner. (NATO leaders wondered the same.) Although polygamy was technically legal under Qaddafi, it was discouraged and today is not practiced widely in Libya, but that could change. Female university students, who largely describe themselves as pious, vow to fight this regression.
In Egypt, a number of developments over the past year underscore women’s rights as a flashpoint in society. The inspirational images of gender solidarity in Tahrir Square in the early days of the revolution quickly gave way to ugly episodes of targeted harassment. A hastily planned demonstration on March 8, International Women’s Day, attracted a few hundred women but was marred by angry men shoving the protesters and yelling at them to go home, saying their demands for rights are against Islam. Around the same time, the Egyptian military rounded up scores of women demonstrators and, in a show of raw intimidation, subjected many of them to “virginity tests.” On the political level, women have been excluded from major decision-making bodies since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and it appears that few, if any, will win seats in the ongoing parliamentary elections. Their low success rate was not helped by the military’s decision to eliminate a Mubarak-era quota ensuring women 64 seats. This was a setback for women’s political participation, even though the quota enjoyed little credibility because it had been used to reward Mubarak loyalists.
The strong showing of Islamists parties in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections has women’s groups worried. The ultraconservative Salafi groups, which took a surprising 20 percent of the vote, openly question a modern role for women in society. One Salafi leader refused to appear on a political talk show on television until the female host put on a headscarf. Another denounced the military government’s requirement to include women on electoral lists as “evil,” though Emad Abdel-Ghafour, head of al-Nour, the leading Salafi party, stated that the party does accept women candidates. Yet the Salafi women who did run demurred from showing their pictures on campaign materials, instead replacing their faces with pictures of flowers; moreover, the party deliberately clustered them at the bottom of its lists, making them unlikely to win seats. One Salafi sheikh recently issued an opinion that women should not wear high-heeled shoes in public. Along with Salafi statements of intent to ban alcohol and limit beach tourism, these swipes at women unnerve liberals.
Yet liberals have not been stalwarts of women’s rights in Egypt either. The 2000 decision to grant women the right to no-fault divorce (prior to this, they had to jump over the onerous legal hurdle of proving abuse or abandonment) was denounced not only by Islamist groups but by secular ones too — for undermining the family. Other changes to the personal-status laws in the past decade that have benefited women, particularly an expansion of custody rights, are coming under increasing attack. Critics discredit the reforms by derisively calling them “Suzanne’s Laws,” after Suzanne Mubarak. They claim the laws were intended to accommodate the wealthy friends of the former first lady, and they blame those statutes for a rise in the country’s divorce rate. Given the criticism of these laws from all sides of the political spectrum, it is likely that they will be amended by the new parliament, and not to women’s benefit.
Women seem to be faring better in Tunisia. Liberals and secularists have been deeply wary of the rise of al-Nahda, the country’s leading Islamist party, warning that it could mean a reversal of women’s rights. Since the 1950s, Tunisian women have enjoyed the most expansive legal rights in the region, including relatively progressive marriage and divorce laws and access to birth control and abortion. Since returning to Tunisia in the beginning of this year, Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda’s leader, has strived to convince Tunisians that his party will not seek to change the country’s personal-status laws. Some, however, have accused al-Nahda of obfuscating its real intentions behind moderate rhetoric — a charge that did not prevent the party from surging to victory with 41 percent of the vote in October’s election. Thanks to electoral rules requiring favorable placement of women on party lists, women gained 23 percent of the seats in parliament, a higher share than in the U.S. Congress. Most of the women are from al-Nahda and will likely reflect their party’s traditional views on women, but their participation in such large numbers at least normalizes an active political role for women. Moreover, Ghannouchi and other al-Nahda leaders so far have been purposefully focused on efforts to jump-start the economy, produce jobs, and reassure foreign investors. Al-Nahda has forged a coalition with liberal parties, and to maintain that coalition, it will have to continue to focus on the economy and human rights rather than getting bogged down in divisive culture wars.
Ghannouchi seems to understand that while rolling back gains for women can score points among Islamic conservatives, ultimately al-Nahda will win or lose on economic grounds, and women are important economic actors. With high rates of literacy and relatively low fertility, women constitute nearly a third of Tunisia’s workforce. Economic reality simply demands a pragmatic approach toward women. Let’s hope that Ghannouchi can get that message through to his Islamist brothers across the region. Otherwise, Arab women might soon be channeling their Iranian sisters, who have complained that Iran’s Islamic Revolution has brought them little but poverty and polygamy.
Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of ‘Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East’, published by A CFR Book. Random House, 2010