Women fare no better after Arab Spring

12 Mar

Gigi Ibrahim: A revolutionary at the vanguard of the Arab Spring.

Last Thursday was International Women’s day, an occasion to honour and praise the achievements of women worldwide. Unfortunately many women, once hopeful for equality and freedom, are now facing increasing subjugation at the hands of men yearning for a return to the antiquity of the past. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the newly liberated Arab states of Tunisia and Egypt.

 As revolution spread across the Arab world last year, women throughout the region took to the streets. Contravening western preconceptions, many wore western style jeans and skirts rather than the traditional niqab and hijab so prevalent in the Muslim world. Unveiled and unhindered, they stood at the vanguard of the movement, demanding not only democratic reform but emancipation from patriarchal domination.

 In Tunisia, Blogger Lina Ben Mhemmi was one of the first voices to alert the world of the impending Arab Spring in December 2010. Writing under the blog titled ‘A Tunisian Girl’ she travelled the country documenting the ‘Jasmine Revolution’. The cause of freedom was further abetted by Raja Bin Salama and Khadija Cherif, prominent members of the Tunisian feminist movement.

 The Egyptian revolution saw women take a primary role in calling for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. The charge was led by women like Gigi Ibrahim. A young revolutionary socialist, she came to personify the ‘Twitter revolution’. Despite chauvinistic threats and being shot with a rubber bullet, Ibrahim has continued in her role as a campaigner for a democratic and secular state in post-Mubarak Egypt.

 Even in the archaic state of Yemen, Tawakel Karman, a prominent human rights activist, played a key role in the unseating of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, camping out for months in front of Sana’a University. Her commitment to democracy and human rights was recognised last year with the award of the Nobel Prize for peace.

 Unfortunately it looks like the efforts of Mhemmi, Ibrahim and others, particularly those advocating secular reform, may have been for very little, as women become increasingly marginalised under the weight of Islamic fundamentalism.

 In Egypt, female parliamentarians now hold just 5 out of 508 seats. In 2010, under the Mubarak regime, they had 68. A quota system, enacted to guarantee a female presence in parliament, has been scrapped, while the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party now dominates parliament, say a woman cannot become president of the country.

The situation in Tunisia is not much better. Prior to the revolution, women enjoyed freedoms almost unmatched in the Arab world. Now women are intimidated into wearing the hijab and liberal parties have expressed increasing concern that the popular Islamist Ennahda party could row back against the secular laws of the past, implementing laws based on Sharia instead.

 And here lies the unfair dilemma for the women of the newly liberated Arab states. The nationalist regimes of the past, although disinterested in democracy, were markedly more receptive to women’s rights than the Islamic parties currently dominating the political scene in both Tunisia and Egypt.

 In Tunisia, under the tenure of the now deposed Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali and his predecessor, polygamy was outlawed, women had equal divorce rights and abortion legalised. As a result of such reforms in 2004 only 3% of Tunisian women aged between 15 and 19 were married, while almost two-thirds of University students were women. Such relative civility and equality is now uncertain as Islamic fundamentalist groups like the ultra-conservative, and somewhat popular, Salafists look to implement Islamic law in both Tunisia and Egypt.

 If they succeed, women will be the first to suffer. Encumbered by patriarchal domination, the most prosaic details in life will be open to moral and legal scrutiny. Things which we take for granted in the West could become almost unthinkable; a public embrace, a gentle flirt, an unveiled head. All of these things are held not only as taboo but as wholly immoral by many of the men now holding office in the region. We need only look to Iran, where a woman was recently executed for adultery, to see the depraved consequences of a state founded upon the law of Sharia.

 Whether the moderates can temper the sectarian chauvinism of the fundamentalists will have to be seen. The peoples of the region, women in particular, deserve to live in a state of positive liberty, where rationalism and tolerance supersede dogmatism and bigotry.

 The women of the Arab spring thoroughly belied the perception that women in the Arab world are slavishly subordinate to the whims of men. Their continued courage and sacrifice, in the face of brutal intimidation, demonstrates that the desire for freedom is not one to be bound by the borders of gender or faith. While they may have been forced, for now, to look from the outside in, it seems only a matter of when, rather than if, the women of the Arab Spring eventually succeed in their fight for equality.

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