The Arab Spring constitutes one of the most prominent political developments of the 21st century. In the revolutions that took place all over the Arab world, women played an active and important role. In the Middle East and North Africa regions, they initiated street protests and organized public political movements; they also overthrew powerful dictators that had been ruling for many years. Despite their dynamic participation, the Arab Spring did not bring the political, social, and economic progress that these women desired.

Indeed, despite successful elections in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt—three key countries during the Arab Spring—women’s political, social, and economic rights in these countries remained stagnant following the ousting of their repressive dictators. Problems like women’s low participation ratio in decision making and transition government processes, insufficient representation in social areas, and persistent limitations on many freedoms, dashed many hopes that existed at the beginning of the Arab Spring. These problems, as well as post- Arab Spring disillusionment, have increased concerns regarding the future of women in the region.

A survey published by Thomson Reuters Foundation in the fall of 2013 explored post-Arab Spring statistics surrounding the women who played a pioneer role in forming protests, making decisions, and creating their own free spaces during their respective countries’ revolutions. The survey, which relied on personal interviews and quantitative data from 22 Arab countries, found that, in many ways, the situation for women became worse after the Arab Spring. Gender-based violence and sexual harassment emerged as a primary concern for many women, causing Reuters to subsequently rate Egypt as the worst country for women out of the 22 in the survey, behind even Saudi Arabia, notorious for restrictive laws such as that prevent women from driving, or war-torn Somalia. Survey results caused Reuters to conclude that a shocking 99.3% of women in Egypt are subjected to such harassment. Still worse, the report states that 91% of women in Egypt are victims of female genital mutilation.

The data found in the Reuters survey were further confirmed in a CARE International report, published at approximately the same time: in particular, CARE found that trends regarding gender-based violence and women’s participation in government represented serious backsliding. However, the CARE report also posited that the situation was more complicated than a straightforward relapse. Rather, in many countries, the organization’s interviews revealed broader changes. Under old regimes, the report suggests, women’s rights were the domain of the elite, reliant on social networks defined by wealth and power. With the Arab Spring came grassroots involvement; however, expansion of the reach of women’s rights movements also expanded the number of different agendas being brought to the fore. In addition, the impacts of the Arab Spring on established power structures complicated a system in which the old groups had operated.

Both CARE and Human Rights Watch explicitly tie the negative trends in women’s rights with the growing popularity of Islamist political parties. Such parties often view women’s rights as a Western imposition, seeking to destroy the fabric of traditional society. When members of these parties did argue for women’s welfare, they relied on a different set of values: gender equity, not equality, with complementary gender roles, and an emphasis on women confining their role to the home. To further complicate matters, such arguments came from both men and women active in Islamist parties or groups. While international human rights law makes no restriction on women’s right to live this conservative lifestyle, many governments sought to pass restrictive laws forcibly confining women to the domestic sphere.

CARE is not entirely without hope, recommending that activists focus on less controversial points of entry regarding women’s rights such as maternal health or girls’ education. In addition, all of these organizations highlight the strong, capable, and determined women who live in these countries. Some of these women hold political office, while others work with NGOs, and some stay engaged within the community. All of them are actively working to change the status quo, freeing women of the violence, legal restriction and social repression that they continue to face in many Arab countries. In addition, women’s rights in the Arab world are a closely scrutinized issue. Some countries such as Egypt have been successfully pressured into making superficial changes; the challenge is inciting real and lasting improvement. The stakes are high for all involved: Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch believes that, particularly for the post-Arab Spring Islamist-dominated governments, the treatment of women will form a key component of their record and of their international standing.

This blog was also published at POMEAS.

Selma Bardakci and Rebecca Lucas

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