Commentary

Arab women’s unfinished revolution

Published: March 8, 3:59 AM
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Though women across the Middle East participated in the Arab Spring protests that began in late 2010, they remain second-class citizens, even where popular uprisings managed to topple autocratic regimes.

Indeed, the Islamist governments now in power seem more determined than the despots that they replaced to keep women out of politics.

In conducting interviews with women in the region, I am struck by their overall pessimism. They fear the loss of their rights. They see economic disintegration all around them, raising the possibility of a further increase in violence. As social bonds fray, they feel increasingly vulnerable.

More than once, I heard them express the view that things were better before the revolutions.

Female representation in Parliaments and government Cabinets after the Arab Spring has been either absent or meagre, and women activists worry that Islamist parties will implement reactionary policies that discriminate on the basis of gender.

In Egypt, for example, the Freedom and Justice Party, which dominates the Parliament, claims that a woman cannot become President. Egyptian women were heavily represented in the protests that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, but they have been largely excluded from any official decision-making role ever since.

In Morocco, while there were eight women in the previous Cabinet, today there is only one in the Islamist-led government. In January, the Islamist-dominated Parliament adopted a decree lowering the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16, a major setback.

Parliamentary representation for women has also taken a hit. Women hold less than 1 per cent of seats in the current Egyptian Parliament; previously, they held 12 per cent.

In Tunisia, the election in 2011 brought 49 women into the 217-seat Constituent Assembly. But 42 of these women are members of Ennahda, which regards Syariah (Islamic law) as the source of legislation.

The recent assassination of the secular Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid has raised the stakes for women there. Mr Belaid was a voice for women’s rights, and the threat of increased political violence will focus on those who advocate secular equality for all Tunisians, including women.

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