THE ARAB WORLD
The Arab Spring is looking like a great leap backwards for women
The Arab spring’s promise of freedom and equality is beginning to seem more distant than ever to Arab women. Hoda Badran traces three scenarios for post-revolution Egypt that have very different implications for women’s rights.
Women have stood shoulder to shoulder with men in revolutions as far back as we can remember. They were present at the French revolution and uprisings not only in Europe but in Latin America, Algeria and most recently in the Arab world, where they demonstrated fearlessly on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, chanting and waving the banners of revolutionary fervour.
Now that the dust of revolution has begun to settle as the Arab spring countries begin their transition process towards democracy, women are finding themselves marginalised and excluded from decision-making. The many disturbing incidents that have occurred illustrate the extent to which, in spite of the new freedoms championed by revolution, women are still considered as subordinate to men. In Tunisia a mass protest called for all women to be veiled, which led to unveiled female professors of religion being hounded off campuses. Mobs shouted at Tunisian women demonstrators to go back to the kitchen “where they belong”. In Egypt, too, conservative thinking is on the rise and voices are growing louder in support of policies that would represent a backward step for women. A good example of this are the reforms being made to family legislation.
Angered and deeply alarmed by these developments, Arab women have felt forced to defend their rights and ensure their voices are heard in their respective countries’ transition processes. In April of last year Tunisian women succeeded in getting an electoral parity law passed, thanks to which they won 22.6% of parliamentary seats in last October’s elections – 49 seats out of a total 217. In Egypt, though, the prospects for women seem gloomier because they failed to retain the pre-revolution quota system that had given them 64 seats in parliament. That system was abolished and replaced by a new electoral law which obliges political parties to include at least one woman on their candidacy list. But the problem is that almost all the parties put female candidates at the end of their lists, and as a result only nine women were elected to the present parliament. Two more women were appointed to the Egyptian parliament by the Senior Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), bringing the percentage of women in parliament to about 2%. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian parliaments are dominated by Islamist groups, who constitute the majority. Draft legislation which reflects a restrictive interpretation of Shariaa, particularly when related to the status of women, is now being submitted for discussion in these parliaments, so that polygamy, for example, is being debated in many Arab countries. There seems a clear intention to allow its unrestricted practice even in countries where it was prohibited by law prior to the Arab spring. In Egypt, the parliament’s legislative committee has received a proposal for lowering the age of marriage for girls from the 18 years of age currently stipulated by law to 12. Needless to say this would be an aberration in terms of girls’ education alone, not to speak of the other implications.
The challenges faced by Arab women are mounting by the day, placing a major question mark over whether the Arab spring will bring their long dreamed-of equality and freedom. Their future is made all the more unpredictable by the Arab world’s increasingly turbulent social and political climate.
A feature of the Egyptian revolution was the equality between the very different actors who were its initiators. None of these tried at that time to seize a leadership role. The power struggle pitted the forces of Hosni Mubarak’s regime against the people, including women, out on the streets and in the squares who were demanding freedom, dignity and social justice. But now, as Egypt tackles the transition towards democratisation, things are strikingly different. The once unified body of protest against the Mubarak regime has become fragmented, with each part defending its own interests. These advocate each group’s different version of the revolution’s goals, and the two most prominent actors in the new power spectrum are the military as represented by the Senior Council of Armed Forces – SCAF– and the Islamists, who include the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. Lesser actors include political parties, youth coalitions, feminist groups and others such as Al Azhar, the media and the church.
Women's current position in the power negotiations is sadly weak. The Governmental Council for Women (NCW) has been restructured, there’s a New Feminist Union (EFU) and a number of coalitions made up of feminist NGOs have been created, but they are far from being sufficiently well organised to work together effectively.
There now seem to be three possible scenarios for women’s future status in Egypt. Each of these will depend on a variety of different factors, not least the actions that women will take themselves. The first scenario is that of a military regime. This posits the SCAF successfully supporting the military’s candidate to be the next President of Egypt, in other words General Shafeek. If this were to be the case, the country would continue to be ruled under the military system introduced back in 1952 when Naguib and then Abdel Nasser came to power, and which was sustained by Sadat and then Mubarak. Any new military system might not be an exact replica of the pre-revolutionary one, and could indeed introduce some changes to accommodate other strong political actors. But certainly the new constitution would give Egypt’s next president extensive authority, restrict the power of the executive system and bestow on the army the same privileges it enjoyed before the revolution.
But the main problem with militarism is that it allows the use of deliberate and organised physical force as a method of pursuing policies. Power is its guiding ideology, and its concrete expression is the abuse of human rights. Its institutional form includes a hierarchical system that is not accountable to the people and its dominant-submissive culture of relationships, notably when it comes to gender relations. Militarism and patriarchy are inextricably linked, and both view masculinity as the opposite of femininity. If soldiers, and by extension all “real” men are strong and daring, then real women should be the antithesis, namely passive, obedient and in need of protection as “good” wives, sisters and mothers.
In short, militarism opposes gender equality and in this scenario women's status in Egypt will undoubtedly deteriorate from the levels attained before the uprisings. But it is to be hoped that the recently established Egyptian Feminist Union will gain strength, unify women under its structure and be successful in acquiring a strong position in the current power negotiations within society to defend their rights.
The second scenario depicts the rise of an Islamist regime. It assumes that the next President of Egypt will be from an Islamist group, that the parliament will continue to be dominated by that group and that the new constitution will reflect a religious state. The Islamist groups have historically had a love-hate relationship with Egypt’s pre-revolutionary regimes. Nasser befriended but later shunned them, after accusing them of planning his assassination. Sadat followed a similar policy only to be subsequently murdered by one of their members. And Mubarak's regime persecuted and imprisoned many of them.
Despite all these difficulties they have managed to grow in number and to successfully organise themselves. As soon as Mubarak was ousted, many who had immigrated returned from abroad. The majority of Islamist groups, particularly those who have come back from Saudi Arabia, followed the Wahabi ideology of Islam which is – coincidentally – the most restrictive of all in terms of gender issues. Within this scenario, the status of women will become much worse than it was before the revolution. With a parliament dominated by the Islamists, legislation that would lead to women’s dis-empowerment could easily be passed. Among other things, these would include making polygamy the rule and not the exception, as well as depriving women of an equal right to divorce. The Islamists could also impose the veil and later on the niqab, so an immense effort would be required on the part of women’s rights activists if injustices of this sort were to be prevented.
The third, and brightest, course of events that could take place would be the election of a liberal president who would appoint a government in which women made up a third of the cabinet. A new parliament would have to be elected to replace the existing one, and ideally would not be dominated by any single group, but rather would represent the spectrum of different ideologies and so include a reasonable majority from the liberal parties. A quota would be reinstated for women to raise their percentage in the parliament to about 30%. In this scenario, the Egyptian Feminist Union would gain strength by acquiring board membership of NGOs and by building alliances with political parties and trade unions. The result would be that degrading family legislation could be prevented, such as on polygamy, and laws could be passed that would ensure that divorce is validated through a judicial court. Most importantly of all, a liberal regime would provide women with opportunities to take on the leadership roles that have traditionally been denied to them.
This last scenario represents a glimmer of hope for women’s future status in Egypt. But it will only materialise if all stakeholders join forces to complete Egypt's transitional democratisation process.
Hoda Badran is President of the Egyptian Feminist Union. email@example.com