The Arab revolutions, and their aftermath, are a testament to the
human spirit. In a matter of months, decades of corruption and injustice
were confronted by the raw strength of women and men unified against a
common dictator. Facing death, torture, and sexual assault at the hands
of state police and government-hired thugs, people across the greater Middle East sought to shed the yoke of tyranny, as they demanded one simple human right – dignity.
But once the revolutions ended and the transitional phase began,
women were expected to return to their homes. Men continued to
monopolize power feeling little obligation to include the women who
marched for freedom alongside them. For many women, however, the
revolution was not only about removing a lone dictator but also
uprooting an entire system of authoritarianism stretching from the
presidential palace to the classroom and into the bedroom. Thus, Arab
women of diverse political viewpoints are now focusing on ensuring the
revolutions were not merely an exception to the norm of patriarchy that
prevails in many Middle Eastern countries.
The revolutions reshaped gender roles in the public square. Indeed, in Egypt alone, 20 to 50 percent of the daily protesters were women, and as a consequence they, too, were beaten, jailed, and tried before military tribunals. Women protesters were also humiliated with virginity tests to warn others that they faced the same fate should they leave their homes to join the revolution. Despite their sacrifices, Arab women’s glaring absence
from the new parliaments, constitutional drafting committees, and
cabinet appointments does not bode well for what lies ahead for them.
Egypt, for example, women comprised less than 2 percent of
post-revolution parliamentarians, compared to nearly 12 percent during
the Mubarak era. By eliminating quotas for women candidates and listing
women at the bottom of party lists, new election laws nearly guaranteed
an absolute exclusion of women from the legislative branch. Even in Tunisia,
where women successfully fought for a new law requiring every party to
include a woman in the first two slots of a party list, women comprise
only 26 percent of the parliament because they were consistently placed
second in districts where a party could win one seat.
And in Yemen,
patriarchal tribal traditions appoint men in key political positions as
the women without whom Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would
not have been overthrown are pushed back into their homes. Similarly, in Libya, women are woefully underrepresented in the transitional council.
earning their rightful place at the table, Arab women have been
relegated to the private sphere where their ability to make systemic
change is significantly constrained. The need for change is real as
exemplified in gender disparities in education, employment, and
politics. According to the 2005 Human Development Report from
the United National Development Programme, women in Arab countries
suffer more than men from a lack of opportunities to acquire knowledge,
even though girls outperform boys in competitive academic performance in
Similarly, less than one-third of Arab women
aged 15 years and older are employed, in contrast to the world average
of over one half. Arab women’s participation in the workplace does not
exceed 42 percent, again the lowest rate in the world compared to a
global average of 69 percent. And in politics, the proportion of women
representatives in parliaments remains the lowest in the world at under
10 percent. This reality remains intact notwithstanding the revolutions.
the revolutions in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, are far from
over. In Egypt and elsewhere, bloggers, activists, and protesters must
employ the same tenacity and courage exhibited during the revolution to
create permanent places for women in high government office, political
party leadership, media, and civil society. The grassroots networks
created out of the revolution can be leveraged to call to task the new
government and various political parties for failing to include women,
beyond hollow gestures of tokenism, in leadership positions.
the discourse should shift from a generic call for women’s rights to an
explicit demand that women are proportionately included in all major
decisionmaking bodies. In Egypt, through their meaningful participation,
women can interject their various perspectives into processes that will
shape the country's future.
Concurrent with these demands should
be constitutional provisions enshrining equal rights; new election laws
that level the playing field across class, religion, and gender; and
reforms of unfair laws in marriage, divorce, property rights, and
custody of children.
First, the Egyptian constitution should
explicitly include men and women in all provisions addressing individual
rights. This explicit reference to women minimizes the abuse of
discretion by predominantly male legislators, the executive branch, and
judges. To offset historical disparities in political representation and
cultural barriers, a temporary quota for women in the parliament should
be reinstated in election laws. When female legislators, judges, and
political appointees become the norm, rather than the exception, then
quotas can be removed. Similar reforms should be implemented in other
Arab nations as well.
While legal reforms are no panacea, they can
trigger the cultural transformation sought by the new generation of
Arab women and men. Democracy, like revolution, is unsustainable in
Egypt and the greater Middle East without inclusion of women. Indeed, studies show that a nation’s economic success is tied to women’s education, political empowerment, and ability to contribute their education and skills toward economic growth.
the end, Egyptians and citizens in other Arab nations had their
revolutions to create a better economic future for their children based
on a democratic system of governance. This cannot be realized as long as
women are barred from the decisionmaking table.
Sahar F. Aziz is an associate professor of law at Texas Wesleyan School of Law and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She also serves as the President of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.
This article was published by The Christian Science Monitor on December 12, 2012. Read it here.