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Voices The Rise of Social Movements

Women’s rights in the new Islamist states

Isobel ColemanSenior Fellow
Council on Foreign Relations

Isobel Coleman (PhD, Oxford) is a senior fellow and director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her areas of expertise include democratization, civil society, and economic development. Her most recent book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East (Random House, 2010), explores how activists are working within the tenets of Islam to create economic, political, and educational opportunities for women.

The revolutions unfolding across the Arab world have not only upended long-standing secular, authoritarian dictatorships; the new political systems emerging are bringing long-suppressed Islamist parties to the forefront. In Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary election, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with more conservative Salafist parties, won more than 70 percent of the seats. In June 2012, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi captured Egypt’s presidency. In Tunisia, Al Nahda, the largest Islamist party, won over 40 percent of the seats in parliament, making it the leading party in the new government. These results are not surprising: Islam is the cultural touchstone for most Arabs, and polls consistently show large majorities across the Arab world support sharia—Islamic law—as the basis of legislation. Indeed, a 2012 Gallup poll found Arab women as likely as men to favor sharia as a source of law.

Many, however, worry that the political ascendency of Islamist groups will set women’s rights back, as happened with the triumph of Islamic theocracy in Iran. Under the Shah, women in Iran enjoyed a relatively expansive set of legal rights, but those rapidly deteriorated with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the name of Islam, Khomeini rolled back women’s legal status, significantly reduced their family rights, and set the marriage age for girls at 9 (it has since been adjusted to 13). For more than thirty years, women in Iran have been struggling to regain lost legal ground.

Will the rise of Islamists in the Arab world similarly undermine women’s rights? Provocative pronouncements from conservative Islamists and several shocking incidents of violence against women have raised concerns. Indeed, there is good reason for caution: how effectively women’s rights are incorporated into broader demands for social, economic, and political change in these transitioning countries is, in many ways, a bellwether for the future of the region. Women’s rights are a critical marker for a broader set of human rights, including freedom of religion, minority rights, and freedom of speech. At stake is no less than the question of whether democracy really can take hold in the Arab world.

There are troubling signs that the road ahead for women will be challenging. In Egypt, some Salafi leaders openly question a modern role for women in society. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, one prominent Salafi leader denounced the military government’s requirement to include women on electoral lists as “evil,” although the head of al-Nour, the leading Salafi party, tried to quickly tamp down the controversy by stating that the party does accept women candidates. Still, the women who ran on the Salafi lists demurred from showing their photographs on campaign materials, instead representing themselves with pictures of flowers. The fact that women won fewer than 2 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliament is another worrying indicator. And despite its protests to the contrary, Egypt’s more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood is hardly a women-friendly organization, and Islamists across Egypt’s political spectrum have called for rescinding the country’s relatively progressive personal-status laws.

In Libya, conservatives have called for bringing back polygamy (which was largely restricted under Qaddafi) and have vowed to create an Islamic state. In Tunisia, Salafists have harassed women on the streets for wearing skirts or trousers; Salafi protesters demanding that women be allowed to wear the full face-covering niqab during exams have virtually shut down several universities. These swipes at women, along with fundamentalists’ vows to ban alcohol and limit beach tourism, are understandably making liberals nervous.

Women’s rights across the region are under pressure not only on religious grounds; the strong association of the local women’s movement with the previous, now discredited regimes has also undermined popular support for women’s groups: Suzanne Mubarak, former first-lady of Egypt, ran a state-affiliated women’s nongovernmental organization; Leila Ben Ali, Tunisia’s despised first lady, was president of the Arab Women Organization, an intergovernmental body sponsored by the Arab League; both Syria’s Asma al-Assad and Jordan’s Queen Rania have been active on women’s issues.

Despite these challenges, there are several reasons to be optimistic that women will hold their ground in the transitioning Arab countries and over time emerge even stronger. First and foremost is economics: Tunisia, Egypt, and even oil-rich Libya simply cannot afford to disempower half their population. Across the Middle East, women are increasingly well educated: the majority of college graduates in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are female—and employed. Although only one in three women today participate in the formal economy in the Arab world, workforce participation rates are rising, and many families now rely on two incomes.

Moderate Islamist leaders like Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Al Nahda in Tunisia, recognize that their political prospects depend on meeting voters’ economic expectations, and that picking fights on women’s rights would be self-defeating. Not only would they lose the support of liberals and secularists, but they would also scare away critical international support. Tunisia and Egypt’s economies are inextricably linked with the outside world. In 2010, revenue from tourism comprised 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP, and the tourism industry employed 20 percent of Tunisians. Tunisia’s largest trading partner is the European Union, and Egypt has renewed efforts to win an open-trade agreement with the United States. Attracting foreign direct investment and foreign tourists is critical for economic growth. Libya’s transitional government has also strongly stated its interest in fostering trade with Europe and the United States and welcoming international businesses. Its leaders are focused on rebuilding the country and recognize that women are an important element of economic modernization.

The second reason for optimism is that the Arab revolutions have mobilized women in unprecedented fashion. A new generation of women leaders is demanding a seat at the table, taking to the streets and the airwaves and using social media to make their voices heard. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, a journalist and human-rights activist from Yemen, became the iconic image of the Arab female protester, but there are many thousands of women blogging, marching, organizing, and demanding a role in their new societies. Women activists succeeded in getting electoral preferences that resulted in women capturing more than 23 percent of the seats in Tunisia’s parliament and 16 percent of the seats in Libya’s parliament. Of course, this sizeable presence of women in parliament is no guarantee against a backsliding on women’s rights, especially since many of those elected are affiliated with Islamist parties. But at a minimum, their role in parliament entrenches a role for women in the public sphere. Whether in politics or the media, education or the workforce, the reality of women’s lives is diverging at an ever faster pace from the norms that fundamentalists would like to impose on society.

Although a majority of Arabs profess a desire to live under an Islamic system, what that actually means in practice is up for debate. And it is a healthy one to have—one that is long overdue. This debate is now taking place in earnest, with moderate Islamists like Ghannouchi insisting that Islam is compatible with women’s rights and accommodates a strong public role for women in society. The battle for women’s rights could very well intensify in the coming years, but the divide is no longer simply between secularists and Islamists. The key debates are now occurring within Islam. In many ways, this is a transformative moment for Islamism in the Middle East, as newly empowered Islamist parties struggle to define their positions not only on women’s rights but also on human rights. While extremist ideas will never disappear, it is possible that a moderate center—one that embraces women’s rights—will come to dominate the mainstream and provide greater security to women than the top-down decrees of secular dictators.

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