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Arab Awakening Offers Women Opportunities, Challenges

Wed, Sep 21, 2011

Press

allAfrica.com

Washington — Women joined, and in some cases led, the pro-democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011, but what place will they have in their emerging governments?

On September 20, a group of female activists and leaders from the region gathered in Washington at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to participate in two panels on “Women and Democratic Transition in the Middle East.”

“Seven months ago I would not have come here,” said Farida Naqash, chairwoman of the Forum for Women in Development. “Women in Egypt are full of hope. Every aspect of the Egyptian revolution included women. They slept in the square, they distributed leaflets. On the other hand, the result of the revolution is not what women expected. Before the revolution, we had three women ministers, now only one.”

Naqash cited the role of women in bringing about previous revolutions in Egypt and the failure of that participation to be carried over into the new governments. “Women must still go on fighting so history doesn’t repeat itself,” she said.

Mahnaz Afkhami, the founder and president of Women’s Learning Partnership, which sponsored the event, recalled the promises made to women in the Iranian revolution of 1979.

“Khomeini said women were free in everything, including clothing,” she said. Following the revolution, those supporting women’s rights were declared enemies of Islam. “Beware of people who want to put off addressing the situation of women,” Afkhami warned women in countries transitioning to democracy.

She stressed the importance of distinguishing the “revolutionary moment” from the slow process of building a democracy.

“In Morocco,” said Rabéa Naciri, a founding member of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, “we had the spring without the revolution.”

The March decision by King Mohammed VI to undertake comprehensive constitutional reform in the wake of uprisings in the Middle East has brought renewed hope to Moroccan women. Naciri said she believes the pace of gains in women’s rights had slowed in the years leading up to the spring protests. In the months since, Naciri said, the push for women’s rights has new vigor.

“Since the start of the Tunisian revolution, we’ve started hearing about the civil state. This is a great step forward.” However, she said, the concept of a civil state is still “nebulous,” adding, “There’s no in-depth debate about what we should do about ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. The status of women has received hardly any debate.”

Thoraya Obaid, former under secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, spoke of the ways in which Pakistan could serve as a useful model for women’s democratic progress in the Middle East and described the “sea change” in women’s rights in Pakistan during her lifetime.

“Women are members of every single institution armed forces, police, scientific institutions, leaders in law and medicine.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and women make up about 25 percent of the parliament.

But despite these democratic advancements, Obaid said, women still suffer a great deal of cultural discrimination. “Old habits and customs die hard,” she said.

Both panel discussions addressed obstacles for women in emerging Middle East democracies at a time of both opportunity and risk.

“Fundamentalism is one of the main challenges of the Muslim world,” said Farida Naqash. “How to transform religious progressive thought and the new interpretation of the Quran into a mass movement, not something for the intellectuals only.”

The greatest threat to democracy in Pakistan, said Obaid, is destabilization through terrorism. “There has been a great surge of terror,” she said. “Democracy cannot function without peace.”

About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more