Women on the back foot in the Arab Spring


They were on the front line during last year’s Arab uprisings, but women now fear for their rights as Islamists reap the fruits of revolt, winning elections in Egypt and Tunisia and gaining influence in Libya.

In Tunisia, the dominant Islamist Ennahda party has said it wants to fortify the personal status code, which bans polygamy and grants Tunisian women unparalleled rights in the region, by making it a basic law.

Changing such a law requires two thirds of the votes in parliament.

But recent debates in the constituent assembly on the mention of sharia -- Islamic law -- in Tunisia’s constitution have worried women and liberal parties who fear a decline in women's rights.

In Egypt, where Islamists dominated parliamentary and senate elections, female representation in parliament fell from 12 percent to just two percent, and a quota that gave women 64 seats was abandoned.

“Women are now confronting attempts to exclude them from public life, as well as acts of discrimination and violence, perpetrated with impunity by extremist groups and security forces,” said a report by the International Federation for Human Rights.

In Tunisia, some teachers have been intimidated for not wearing the hijab, a head covering worn by devout women.

In Egypt, female protesters have been subjected to “virginity tests” by the ruling military, a practice calculated to humiliate them, according to Amnesty International.

Kuwaiti women’s rights activist Ebtehal al-Khatib said the rise of the Islamists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions will “first and foremost negatively affect the role of women” in the Arab world.

“When religious groups rise to positions of power... the first to be affected negatively are women... her issues and concerns and rights will be the first thing to be shelved” as Islamist-oriented parliaments take hold in the Middle East, she said.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party dominates parliament, says a woman cannot become president of the country.

“Any law that agrees with sharia is welcome. Those that do not aren’t,” Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan told AFP.

In Libya, where Islamists are on the ascendancy after the toppling of long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the country’s leader sparked concerns with a statement on the importance of Islamic law.

The day he declared Libya liberated, the head of the National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdel Jalil said sharia would be the main source of law and any law that violates sharia would be null, mentioning marriage and divorce laws.

A first draft of the electoral law in Libya reserved 10 percent of seats in the constituent assembly for women, but that was later abandoned, much to the outrage of women's rights advocates.

“There is some fear of Islamist parties,” said Ahlam al-Haj of the centrist National Party.

In its report due to be released in full this month, the International Federation for Human Rights called on countries in the region to “enshrine in the constitution the principle of equality between men and women and the prohibition of all forms of discrimination against women.”

In Egypt, women’s rights also suffer because of their perceived association with president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

“The old regime appropriated the issue of women rights, using the National Council of Women, associated with (former first lady) Suzanne Mubarak,” said Amina al-Bendary, a women’s rights activist and American University in Cairo professor.

As a result, legislative victories by the council have been attacked, although they were the achievements of a decades-long struggle by feminists, she said.

Bendary said she feared that personal status laws, such as a law that allows women to divorce if they renounce their financial rights, would be reviewed.

Feminists also face another hindrance in the beliefs of more conservative women who argue that being granted “too many” rights contravenes religion and social norms.

“Any quota for women should not be more than 20 percent,” said one woman at a women’s workshop in the Libyan capital in January.

“Work cannot interfere with women’s mission, which is first to raise children and take care of the home,” she said.