Political instability, civil war and terrorist bombings, along with the proliferation of an ultraconservative, women-hostile approach to Islam, are all culprits in this backsliding of women’s security and status. These forces have heaped new burdens on Middle Eastern women, already beset by educational and economic handicaps in their long battle to achieve their full rights.
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, has beamed a spotlight on women’s rights in the region through numerous conferences in the past two years and she has seen the mood change dramatically. “We started the Arab Spring with a lot of optimism,” she said. “By 2013, the hope had vanished.”
Egypt’s dramatic turnaround with the military’s July 3 dethroning of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi has raised hopes among many women rights’ activists that a new political climate will allow them to reverse their losses.
“What’s going on in Egypt gave all of us a breath of fresh air [and] some hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Fatima Sbaity Kassem, former director of the Center for Women at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.
But others remain cautious. “It’s much too early . . . I would like to reserve my judgement,” said Esfandiari, who wants to see if women have significant and visible participation in the military-run transition back to civilian rule.
Moreover, the conservative Islamist mindset represented by Mursi, which relegates women to an inferior status, continues to enjoy widespread support in a deeply divided Egyptian population.
The backsliding in women’s rights has been spotty across the Middle East. Tunisian and Moroccan women have managed for the most part to keep the gains they had made before the Arab Spring began. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has moved educational and economic opportunities for women much higher on the government’s priority list, and has appointed thirty women to the once all-male Majlis.
On the other hand, Syrian women have been plunged into the gravest danger, suffering from war-generated physical violence and rape. And in Egypt, women’s rights have faced a frontal assault. Although women played an active role in the unprecedented protests that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak, they soon became targets of sexual harassment and violence that included beatings and rape. Arrested female protesters were subjected to “virginity tests” while in custody.
Islamist-oriented clerics and politicians also began questioning the law criminalizing female genital mutilation, Egypt’s signing of the international Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the right of women to seek a no-fault divorce in courts. They also drafted legislation to lower the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 13. In addition, the contentious 2012 constitution pushed through by Mursi removed the previous constitution’s quota for female parliamentarians as well as its explicit ban on discrimination based on gender.
Human rights activist and former Egyptian diplomat Moushira Khattab attributed these developments to “the rise of a very conservative interpretation of Islam [that] has filled TV and social media, pushing women to the backseat.”
But along with these setbacks for women came valuable experience in organizing and activism. As Khattab said, “Women in the MENA region have emerged very strong from these uprisings because they challenged taboos and did things that they never did before.”
Still, women’s rights activism has many shortcomings, and the big one is the lack of a sustained, region-wide organization or movement. “Movement-building is extremely important,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, a former minister for women’s affairs in Iran and now president and CEO of the Maryland-based Women’s Learning Partnership. She argues that there needs to be far more collaboration and networking between women’s rights activists and women at the grassroots level, who are often at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“MENA women,” adds Khattab, “need to have a unified agenda and to lobby collectively across national borders.”
Honey Al-Sayed, co-founder of SouriaLi, an Internet-based radio station focused on Syria, said women also must fight to become more visible in all media—print, television and radio—in both presenting the news and in the stories that are broadcast so that they can be “a role model for other women. . . . We need to be more visible, not just in entertainment TV but in all media,” said Sayed.
Sbaity Kassem said women rights’ activists have to learn to build alliances with men who champion women’s rights, especially with what she called “enlightened religious leaders” who can “reinterpret Shari'a in a women-friendly manner.” And women themselves, she insists, “have to become more involved in [Islamic] jurisprudence” because it is not Islam itself, but rather its interpretation, that lays the ground for government policies.
Indeed, religion—or men’s interpretation of religion—is the biggest challenge for Middle Eastern women today. “We still haven’t figured out our relationship with religion as women activists,” said Afkhami. “We still have a divide between those who consider themselves deep believers and those who consider themselves activists [for women’s rights], as if you have to choose between your faith and your activism.”
The spread of political Islam in the past two years, she added, has deepened this divide.
Those who advocate for a strict separation of mosque and state in the Middle East are being unrealistic, said Sbaity Kassem. “I don’t believe that it is realistic that in our part of the world that there is a clear divide between religion and politics. They are intertwined,” she said. “The important thing is not to reach [the point] where religiosity is at its peak” and becomes extremism. “We want a moderate line, in the middle.”
“Maybe this is the common agenda that all women in the MENA region should work for, to clear religion from the stigma of discrimination and violence against women,” said Khattab. “Now in Egypt, we have many women who are excellent on the interpretation of Shari'a and they are very vocal. This is good. Because we need to reach a consensus that Islam is for women’s rights.”
Despite Washington’s pro-rights rhetoric, these activists say it has not done enough in concrete ways to protect and advance women in the region. They would like to see the US government do more, working through international organizations, to support grassroots networks and projects that help Middle Eastern women.
Afkhami and Khattab said Washington also should be more specific and vocal in its criticisms of actions that violate their own democratic values. “It shouldn’t fall for the usual, the way they did with Mursi, just tolerating any set of policies that seemed to promise the possibility of stability and security or the possibility of protection [for] Israel,” said Afkhami. “They should have some values in mind and it’s easy to see that any government that is going to have as its ideology the subjugation of women is also going to have extremism of all sorts and oppression of minorities . . . so it cannot be a healthy society. . . . Without women, not only is there not going to be democracy but there is not going to be a stable, tolerant society.”
Khattab said she would like to see more “vigilance” to women’s rights from the US government. “It’s not enough to say we condemn sexual harassment. So what? We want to see a solid legal and constitutional framework that not only protects but ensures the rights of women. And this is lacking.”
But Esfandiari doubts that Washington will become more outspoken. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who gave women’s rights a high profile, had impact because “people knew she was not paying lip service. She sincerely believed in human rights,” said Esfandiari. “But now, you have Department of State that is focused on other issues and you have a White House that is keeping a low profile when it comes to issues regarding women’s rights in the region.”
As a result, she said, “the burden is now on civil society and women activists in the United States” to “give all the support they can give” to women in the Middle East.
Her prediction is only a little brighter than that of Denis Kandiyoti, professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Kandiyoti was interviewed for the documentary film Because Our Cause Is Just, produced by Afkhami’s organization, Women’s Learning Partnership, in both Arabic and English.
“I think a lot is going to be sacrificed and overlooked on the altar of geopolitics,” Kandiyoti said. “By which I mean that successor regimes in the MENA region, as long as they tow the line being market economies, following a broadly sympathetic agenda to the powers of the West, nobody will look very closely at what they do internally.”
Bottom line: Newly empowered Middle East women have their work cut out for them.