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Isobel Coleman – Senior Fellow and Director, Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative, The Council on Foreign Relations

1. Was the role of women in the Arab Spring more or less meaningful than that of men?

Women’s role has been equally important to that of men, and meaningful in different ways. Their participation in the early days brought critical legitimacy and attention to opposition movements, and their ongoing activism has shone a spotlight not only on women’s rights, but also on issues of minority rights and religious freedom. In Libya, women sparked the first big protests against the regime when they demonstrated outside of Abu Salim prison in Benghazi. In Yemen, women have taken to the streets in unprecedented fashion, helping to broaden and sustain the opposition movement. In Egypt, they have protested and blogged alongside men, but also fought back against humiliations such as ‘virginity tests’ by the military and other targeted abuses by security forces. 


2. Have the revolts of the Arab Spring improved the position of women’s rights in the region?

If the uprisings across the region yield more democratic, just, and transparent governments, women’s rights will certainly benefit. Dictatorships are not good for anyone’s rights. However, women cannot take for granted that their activism will translate into political influence or legal gains in the emerging systems. Indeed, newly empowered Islamist groups are calling for changes in women’s legal status that could roll back existing rights. 

In Egypt, women have been excluded from important decision-making bodies, and fewer than ten women won seats in Egypt’s new parliament – less than 2 percent of the 498 seats. Shocking incidents such attacks on an International Women’s Day march, sexual assaults against female activists and journalists, and the brutal beating of a women in Tahrir Square have become markers for how deeply contested women’s public role in society continues to be. Women seem to be faring better in Tunisia, where they have long benefited from the most expansive legal rights in the region. Al Nahda, the leading Islamist party which swept the parliamentary elections with 41 percent of the vote, has said that it will not seek to change the country’s personal-status laws but instead will focus on practical economic issues. Thanks to electoral rules requiring favorable placement of women on party lists, women gained 23 percent of the seats in parliament, a higher share than in the U.S. Congress. In Libya, the situation for women is unclear, as liberals and conservative Islamists vie for influence. One of the first announcements from Libya’s National Transitional Council was that any laws that contradict Sharia would be annulled and going forward, polygamy would be legal. Libyan women expressed disappointment and wondered why, with all of Libya’s pressing issues, reinstating polygamy should be on the front burner. How they will fare in upcoming elections in June is unclear. 


3. How can the women of the Arab Spring turn this activism into long-term/sustainable gain?

With the success of Islamists at the polls, women’s rights activists must find ways to deal effectively with the demands of these influential political groups. Some activists, men and women, are turning to Islamic texts and history to bolster the case for women’s rights, a potentially powerful tactic. How Sharia is reconciled with women’s rights, and more broadly human rights, will be an important determinant of how democracy and law evolve in these countries. Structural supports like quotas are another tactic to support women’s participation in the formal public sphere. Committed leadership at the top and recruiting men to the women’s rights agenda are also important for long term gains. Finally, reliable security and the rule of law is a crucial part of ensuring that women are able to participate in political and economic spheres in a meaningful way.


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