Human rights campaigners had hoped that women’s involvement in protests that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and overthrew Muammar Qaddafi in Libya would lead to more power for women in Arab states.
The uprisings unseated a string of autocrats and triggered some change, including relatively free elections. But two years after the first uprising erupted, activists said women had seen precious few gains and that the rise of Islamist governments in the region was fuelling concern about growing conservatism.
Sally Moore, an activist from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, described recent changes in Egypt as “alarming,” saying a proposed constitution drafted by only men would endanger women's rights and social justice.
The draft constitution will be put to a vote on Dec. 15.
“It feels like two years have gone by and with all these sacrifices for nothing,” she told the conference, organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune.
In Egypt, a quota for female representation in parliament has been abolished, while in Tunisia, quotas mean that 30 percent of assembly members are female. However, local rights groups complain that women ended up with only a handful of posts in a transitional cabinet of over 40 ministers.
Recent episodes of sexual harassment in Tunisia and Egypt, and the handling of these incidents were also of deep concern, women’s rights activists said.
In Tunis, hundreds protested in September after a woman was accused of “indecency” after allegedly being raped by police in a car park, while female protesters demanding an end to sexual harassment were attacked in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in June.
Despite the dearth of progress, activists said they still expected change to come as the Arab revolutions had mobilized women in the region for the first time, with technology and social media dramatically increasing their access to information.
Atiaf Alwazir, an activist and blogger from Yemen, said this was the first time so many women from so many different backgrounds had joined demonstrations.
“The majority of women out on the streets were average women, women from the villages, and outside the political elite. That is what makes this revolution so special,” said Alwazir whose country has just one woman in its 301-member parliament.
Campaigners accepted that meaningful change could take years however.
Alaa Murabit, founder of The Voice of Libyan Women organization, said she had initially written the Arab Spring off as a disaster but that her view had changed since women had made up 51 percent of voters in Libya’s election in July.
“Women are now getting involved and taking the initiative,” she said.
Jordan’s Queen Noor, widow of King Hussein and an international humanitarian campaigner, said the lack of progress for women so far should not be deemed a failure.
“All revolutions, as sudden as they sound, rarely produce results immediately. Momentum builds over time. It can take years or generations,” Queen Noor told the conference.
The rise of Islamist governments was not the primary concern because Islam was not the source of misogyny and female oppression, she said.
“The primary danger to women’s advancement is not religious but economic and social,” she said, referring to traditional customs and societal views.