Women Left In Cold After Arab Spring

For many in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, the Arab Spring uprisings were a glimmer of hope in an area plagued by oppressive regimes and dictators.  While many of these countries are still in a state of transition, the indicia of change are everywhere.

In Tunisia, for example, the local television and radio stations are abuzz with the talk of political parties, drafting a new constitution, and equality amongst the population.  The thought of such discussions taking place openly, even as recently as January, would have been unthinkable under the leadership of President Zine el Abdine Ben Ali.  However, after Ben Ali fled the country weeks into the new year, the Tunisian population has embraced the change which they sought to bring about.

For Marou Ben Shalah, a 23 year old, female student living in Sousse, the memories of change are vivid, “When I learned that Ben Ali ran away, I quickly thought: ‘Is this a happy ending’? ‘Is this a new start?’ I was confused.  The happiness was overshadowed by fear but I’m still optimistic about the future.”

Despite Ben Shalah’s optimism, many have expressed concern over the erosion of civil and individual liberties as new religiously motivated political parties begin to from.  At a recent meeting of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, the group tasked with developed developing a new constitution, the Islamist party Ennhada called for the invocation of Shariah Law as the primary source of legislation.  Ennhada has a commanding majority in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly and the prospect of Islamic law becoming a reality isn’t farfetched.

Similar sentiment has been expressed in Egypt—the heart of the Arab Spring.  Iman Bibars, a social scientist who heads the Association for Development and Enhancement of Women in Egypt, recently noted, “The revolution gave us a voice and we cannot hide that.  But I think the product after the revolution is against women.”  Ms. Bibars also expressed surprise at the popularity of religious zealots in the post Mubarak government, “I was shocked the [Muslim Brotherhood] took over.”

As was noted in a recent New York Times article, religious political ideology poses a large threat to personal rights, particularly for women, in the region.  The larger question must be asked: what can be done?  The United States has sought to promote democracy in the Middle East for decades, is it now our job to promote equality for all genders as well?  Do we have a bargaining chip to help entice these governments to promote civil liberties?  Can the international community do anything to ensure that women have a voice in these young democracies?

For More:

Arab Spring Fails to Allay Women’s Anxieties


  1. As the countries that underwent the arab spring begin to rebuild and restructure it seems important for the west to have at least a seat at the table in these discussions. However, I am not sure if that opinion is based on a right I perceive of the west to be involved or simply a desire to have their new democracy include rights of the west. I anticipate it is the latter. However, it did seem that a desire for these rights is what led to the arab spring in the first place. As countries begin to restructure they should receive guidance from others because it would be unfortunate if after the revolutions they return to much of where they were before in terms of rights of their citizens.

    There is also a value though, of letting people and countries figure out what is befitting of them at the time. However, from the above article, it seems that at least half of the population would be interested in a little western influence.

  2. I would think that promoting the equality of genders would be part and parcel of seeking to promote democracy in the Middle East. And truly, it would be a shame if women, who saw hope of a new future in the Arab Spring, found their voices chilled by a new, repressive government. However, there is nothing inherently threatening to women in establishing Islam as the national religion or, potentially, Shari’a as law. Islam is remarkable for having treated, at an early time, men and women equally with regard to education, marriage and divorce, and access to courts. But what many Westerners have come to associate with Islam is the repressive Saudi Arabia-style “guardianship system” that has developed out of extremely conservative and narrowly literalist interpretations of the Qur’an and other sources of Islamic law [see Human Rights Watch for more on the guardianship system: http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/04/20/saudi-arabia-male-guardianship-policies-harm-women%5D. These misguided interpretations serve to strip women of the very rights that Islam, in fact, gives them. Furthermore, women are not the only potential victims of such a system. The violence in Darfur and what is now South Sudan is, in part, a reflection and a reaction to the Islamic law federalism established in the region around 1983. Non-Muslims suffered under a regime that did little to avoid subjecting non-Muslims to the aspects of Islamic law that both regulated their personal lives and considered them inferior. To prevent similar developments, non-Muslims ought to develop a good understanding of what Shari’a is and is not, and pressure should be brought to bear on these nascent governments from other moderate and progressive Muslim nations, groups, and religious authorities.

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