Posted by on October 04, 2012 in Blog

By Vieshnavi Rattehalli 

2012 Fall Intern

Every state participating in the Arab Awakening or the Arab Spring will follow its own unique path to a more representative society that hopefully incorporates the wishes and needs of its people. Yet in all of these states, there is one group that may continue to be marginalized: women.

All four of the women on the Wilson Center’s panel, Honey Al Sayed, the Director of the Syria Program at Nonviolence International, Yassmine ElSayed Hani, an Independent Journalist from Egypt, Hanin Ghaddar, Managing Editor of NOW Lebanon, and Gabool Almutawakel, the Co-Founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation from Yemen, agreed on several similarities for women both during and after the revolutions. The obstacles to the success of women’s rights movements may even be greater than those of the revolution. Initially, women didn’t come out in support of the revolution specifically to gain gender equality or for women’s rights. They supported the revolution because they wanted better economic conditions for all of society. They wanted food, security, and jobs. They must now continue their struggles for equality alone.

An examination of the post-revolution positions obtained by women in the political sphere speaks to the extent of the problem. Women were and have been used for political purposes, but were told in the aftermath of revolution that women’s issues were not a priority  in light of issues such as food, security and jobs. To bring women’s issues to the forefront, women must participate within the existing system, but women’s representation is virtually nonexistent in local councils or in leadership positions in the private sector. Women’s empowerment can occur through civil society organizations which educate not only women, but also men, on these issues. Civil society organizations provide leadership training and communications skills, help women detect and combat sexism, build institutions, and increase women’s capacity to support fair representation in emerging democracies. Almutawakel also noted that these organizations need to foster a “culture of competition” among women to redirect their career trajectories toward leadership roles in political parties and the private sector.

Hani highlighted a major impact of the Arab Spring in Egypt on women’s rights. The revolution provided entry into new spaces of freedom for women, allowing women and women’s organizations to act collectively and respond publicly on women’s rights issues. All four panelists agreed that increased use of social media helped women’s interests by opening up spaces for dialogue with each other and even providing a chance for women to discuss these topics with men, which especially in gender-segregated Yemen, cannot often happen in a physical setting.

The panelists were vocally divided on the role of religion, specifically Islam, in both the transitional and future governments. Syria and Lebanon are both mosaics of cultures and religions, all of which must be represented in a democratic system. In Egypt, where at least 80% of the population self-identifies as conservative and religious, there has been a revival of a moderate base that does not support violations of women’s rights or human rights. Ghaddar emphasized that religious groups increased division among women’s groups through fear and mistrust of the other, even though all Lebanese women suffer from discrimination under the personal status laws. The Arab Awakening has not changed the situation for women in Lebanon, as they faced repeated obstacles in passing laws to criminalize marital rape or implement proper sentences for perpetrators of abuse. In Ghaddar’s view, religious ideology conspires against women, undermining their fight for rights and independence. Hani disagreed, stating that Egyptians would prefer to see a society that incorporates Islam in the legal system without opening political office to religious leaders.

The discussion on the role of religion in state-building is especially relevant as many of the event’s speakers, both in the first and second panel, were quick to note that their country was not Iran and that they were not looking to build a theocracy, but also that many people in the Arab Spring countries are religious, especially in Egypt. While some argued that Islam could be part of the national identity, but should not be the singular source of the law, others believed that the state should protect all religions and religious places of worship as apolitical social institutions, and that true protection of minority rights necessitates separation of religion and politics.

The fight for women’s rights will take shape differently in each of the Arab Spring countries, dependent on the social, cultural, and religious make-up of each society. In every case, the steps forward are clear: mobilizing civil society organizations that work for women’s empowerment, keeping open all channels of dialogue, using social media to complement traditional media, and holding open discussions on the role of religion in the emerging political system. The status quo for women will not change until women no longer accept it.

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