12 March 2012

Women and the Arab Spring

By Marguerite Finn

On the 8th March this year, International Women’s Day was 101 years old! We have had over a century celebrating a day, which was born not from celebration but out of protest and demands for change. In 1908 in New York, 15,000 garment workers marched through the streets demanding shorter working hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. In 1911, over a million women took to the streets in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland demanding the right to vote, the right to work, the right to hold public office and an end to discrimination.

By 2012, in the ‘developed world’ at least, many of these demands have been met. In some developing nations there is still a long way to go.

The world is in a state of almost permanent conflict, declared, unfinished or imminent. The causes of those wars lie not just in ‘realpolitik’ and the supposed security of States, but in economics and the need for resources. It was the lack of economic rights that sparked the uprisings in the Arab States followed by demands for civil and political rights. It is the same message now as it was 101 years ago.

So how are women faring in the Arab Spring? It seems that they are not faring as well as they should be. Women, alongside men, participated in the protest movements that shook the Arab world in 2011 and continue in 2012, demanding freedom, equality, justice and democracy. Women, as well as men, paid and continue to pay a high price for their struggles. Today women must be able to play their full part in building the futures of their countries. Women's participation in public and political life, on an equal basis with men, is an essential condition for democracy and social justice, values at the heart of the Arab spring. The changes sweeping the region, which in some countries have transformed the political landscapes, present real opportunities for women to push for their rights. Yet they also present risks of regression. Demands for equality are set aside, while the efforts of protesters focus on bringing down regimes and dismantling oppressive state institutions. Recent history painfully reminds us that the massive occupation of public space by women during revolutions, in no way guarantees their role in the political bodies of the regimes that follow.

Although the situation of women varies across the region, threats to their human rights converge. 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. At a time when conservative forces appear to be growing in strength, it is vital that steps are taken to establish equal rights between men and women, as the very foundation of democratic societies.

Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said in Paris on the eve of this year’s International Women’s Day: “Women’s participation in public and political life, on an equal basis with men, is an essential condition for democracy and social justice”.

FIDH sites examples where women have not made the progress expected: in countries in transition women are being marginalised or even excluded entirely from political bodies. In Egypt, there were no women in 2 committees nominated to draft the new constitution. A new electoral law abolished measures guaranteeing women minimum representation in parliament and women gained only 2% of seats in the recent elections. In Libya, the electoral law adopted by the National Transitional Council (NTC) contains no quota for the representation of women in elected bodies. In Morocco, a law adopted in October 2011 established a quota of only 15% and there is one woman minister in the 30 member cabinet (compared to 7 in the previous government). In Tunisia, the 41-member government contains only 3 women.

Concessions on women's rights are often used as bargaining chips by politicians to maintain power by appeasing the most conservative forces. In Libya, while proclaiming the country's liberation from Qaddafi, the President of the National Transitional Council declared that restrictions on polygamy would be removed and divorce prohibited. In Tunisia, several representatives of the new government have issued declarations proposing measures that would violate women's rights.

During the revolutions and uprisings across the region, there have been numerous reports of violence targeting women, committed by militia, soldiers and police. There have also been reports of violence against women committed by demonstrators.

In Syria, women have been abducted by pro-regime forces to spread fear within the population and there are many reports of rape. In Libya, rape was used as a weapon of war and the stigmatization of victims is such that they are condemned to silence. In Egypt, women participating in the demonstrations have been sexually assaulted by protesters and several women protesters were forced by the army to undergo "virginity tests".

Faced with this reality, the International Federation of Human Rights is calling on national governments and parliaments to sign up to “20 measures for equality” and appealing to all ‘international actors’ to support the implementation of these measures by: supporting national and regional women's rights movements and civil society organisations; systematically including women's rights in bilateral and multilateral political dialogues; and systematically including women's rights, with specific objectives and indicators, in all cooperation programmes.

The 20 measures can be found on http://arabwomenspring.fidh.net and http://arabwomenspring.fidh.net/index.php?title=Women_and_the_Arab_Spring:20_measures_for_equality

So for all their participation and enthusiasm in the Arab Spring demonstrations, women’s status in society on equal terms with their male counterparts is not yet assured – and the practice of raping women as a weapon of war is on the increase (as are the wars). The UN Secretary General is addressing this growing trend. But both women and men need to keep up the pressure on their governments to stamp out this barbarity without delay. How many of the new transitional governments will sign up to the “20 measures for equality” is hard to say and even if they do sign up, will they keep to their promises? The FIDH will need to monitor the situation carefully so that progress can be measured by International Women’s Day 2013.


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