Toward Women’s Rights in the Middle East

Posted on 02 November 2011 by

The Middle East has seen unprecedented movement toward democracy in recent months, and women have been in the front lines of the Arab Spring demonstrations from Cairo to Damascus. Still hoarse from cheering in the streets, however, women now find themselves largely voiceless in the political process of rewriting national laws and constitutions.

WLP President Mahnaz Afkhami at Senate Testimony Photo by Avril Lighty

If the budding democracy movements are to lead to equitable societies, they must guarantee equal opportunities to all their citizens. However, the grim truth is that women in the Middle East and North Africa still struggle against traditional norms that relegate them to the private sphere.

After decades of greater access to higher education, a new generation of Arab women is intellectually and emotionally well prepared to manage and to lead. But the Arab world is still last among world regions in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of women’s political participation, and third lowest in the United Nations Development Programme’s global ranking of gender equality. In fact, the gap is widening between Middle Eastern women’s potential to be agents of change and their actual involvement in policy-making.

Regressive attitudes now threaten to take over the new nation-building bodies as well, and even to reverse some recent progress. In Egypt, for example, forces opposed to women’s rights are working to associate past achievement for women with the ousted autocratic regime and so discredit it. Only one woman of a possible 34 was appointed to the new cabinet, and she was a holdover. No women were named governors and none were included on the country’s 10-member constitutional reform committee, not even a well-respected female judge on the constitutional court.

In Libya, the chair of the country’s Transitional National Council recently announced that Islamic law, not secular law, will be the basis for the new constitution, and he indicated specifically that polygamy would be fully legalized. In Jordan, a Royal Commission reviewing the country’s constitution failed to recommend a provision to bar discrimination against women, despite the demands of many activist women’s groups.

Tunisia stood out in the region before the Arab Spring began there for its relatively equitable family laws, along with Morocco, and its recent election has been called free and fair. It even required equal numbers of women on party electoral lists. But their names were placed below those of men on 94 percent of those lists, so true electoral parity likely remains elusive. In addition, the October 23 elections resulted in a majority vote for An-Nahda, considered by some to be a moderate Islamic party. While party leaders have said they will uphold women’s rights, activists are concerned that the party will act differently once in power.

In these countries and others undergoing transition, it is critical that the United States give explicit support for women’s participation in the reform processes. To do this, the United States must demonstrate that our values cannot be sacrificed for short-term gains. We must press new leaders for laws and constitutions that enshrine the principles of equality, minority protections and religious and political freedom.

We should also give an unequivocal endorsement to the international women’s rights treaty known as CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It has been ratified by all the world’s countries except six, including the United States, Somalia, Iran and Sudan. My organization’s longstanding Mideast partners — women’s organizations in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco – have made clear to us that U.S. ratification of CEDAW would strengthen their own efforts to move their countries toward gender equality. Activist women have used CEDAW to press their governments for compliance, and U.S. ratification would demonstrate that we stand with these women in their efforts. It would also raise U.S. credibility as a global defender of women’s rights.

American policy-makers need to make clear that we share a unity of purpose with women in the region. Foreign assistance should help train women, young people and civil society actors to use new technologies to engage in the political process, and develop information and communication pathways that are widely available, secure, and free from censorship. The Arab Spring has demonstrated the power of online tools and networks to shape politics. Women and other underrepresented groups must gain access and ability to use these tools if they are to have their voices heard.

As the Arab Spring fades into a hard winter of critical decision-making, the United States must give these dedicated women its firm support for a social transformation that is fundamental, not cosmetic, and that moves toward democracy and equality for all members of society.

This post was written in conjunction with Mahnaz’s November 2, 2011 testimony before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittees on International Operation and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues and Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Central Asia Affairs hearing on Women and the Arab Spring.

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