World leaders are hoping that the recent toppling of the authoritative regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, and the revolt in Libya, will trigger a democratic, cultural and economic rebirth of these nations. Yet what has remained largely absent from discussions on the future of these countries is how the change to democracy will impact upon women’s place in society.
Women were active participants in anti-government protests that brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square women were as dynamic and outspoken as men, and were clearly visible in TV footage of the protests. Women’s rights activists in Egypt were also forceful in their condemnation of the sexual assault on Lara Logan, an American news reporter, which took place in Tahrir Square right after Mubarak’s resignation. In Tunisia and Libya, too, women have stood beside their male counterparts during rallies, demanding greater freedom after decades of authoritarian rule.
In some respects, the status of women in these countries has undergone a transformation in recent years. In Egypt up until 2000, a wife could not leave the country without her husband’s permission. Now women have greater freedom of movement. Tunisian women, unlike some of their Middle Eastern neighbors, can vote, they are allowed to have cars, and they have rights in the Parliament. Women in Libya can also vote. Here, in addition, equal pay for equal work and qualifications is a fundamental precept of female employment laws.
Many of the liberties established for women by the likes of Ben Ali have been token at best, often serving as little more than a political tool giving legitimacy to these regimes. In Tunisia, for example, Ben Ali was able to fight Islamists by granting certain civil liberties to women. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say women’s statuses in these countries have improved.
The key question now is what will political reform in these countries mean for women’s future? With the dismantling of the political systems in Tunisia and Egypt, many are worried that their rights (however token) will be under threat. Tunisian women in particular fear they may lose the few rights they have if the once-banned Ennadha Islamist party reemerges as a major political force.
In Egypt, women’s political participation is a huge concern. Not one of the female champions of the Egyptian Revolution has a seat on the newly formed constitutional committee. Egypt is full of talented female academics, lawyers, and activists; yet none of them, some experts in constitutional law, have been enlisted to help in the aftermath of the revolution.
Middle Eastern women have played a vital role in speaking out against their regimes, and they must continue to ensure their voices are heard as clearly as they were during the protests. Women deserve their rightful place in the future political makeup of their countries. Their rights must also be protected. Only this way will the states of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, ever succeed in being truly democratic.