Opinion

Egypt and other Arab democracies will not survive without including more women

Despite their sacrifices during the Arab revolutions, Arab women are glaringly absent from the new parliaments, constitutional drafting committees, and cabinet appointments – especially in Egypt. But democracy, like revolution, is unsustainable in the Middle East without the inclusion of women.

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    Women protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans during a demonstration in Cairo, Dec. 11, four days ahead a nationwide referendum on a contentious draft constitution. Op-ed contributor Sahar F. Aziz says 'Egyptians had a revolution in order to create a better economic future for their children based on a democratic system of governance. This cannot be realized as long as women are barred from the decisionmaking table.'
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The Arab revolutions, and their aftermath, are a testament to the human spirit. In a matter of months, decades of corruption and injustice were confronted by the raw strength of women and men unified against a common dictator. Facing death, torture, and sexual assault at the hands of state police and government-hired thugs, people across the greater Middle East sought to shed the yoke of tyranny, as they demanded one simple human right – dignity.

But once the revolutions ended and the transitional phase began, women were expected to return to their homes. Men continued to monopolize power feeling little obligation to include the women who marched for freedom alongside them. For many women, however, the revolution was not only about removing a lone dictator but also uprooting an entire system of authoritarianism stretching from the presidential palace to the classroom and into the bedroom. Thus, Arab women of diverse political viewpoints are now focusing on ensuring the revolutions were not merely an exception to the norm of patriarchy that prevails in many Middle Eastern countries.

The revolutions reshaped gender roles in the public square. Indeed, in Egypt alone, 20 to 50 percent of the daily protesters were women, and as a consequence they, too, were beaten, jailed, and tried before military tribunals. Women protesters were also humiliated with virginity tests to warn others that they faced the same fate should they leave their homes to join the revolution. Despite their sacrifices, Arab women’s glaring absence from the new parliaments, constitutional drafting committees, and cabinet appointments does not bode well for what lies ahead for them. 

In Egypt, for example, women comprised less than 2 percent of post-revolution parliamentarians, compared to nearly 12 percent during the Mubarak era. By eliminating quotas for women candidates and listing women at the bottom of party lists, new election laws nearly guaranteed an absolute exclusion of women from the legislative branch. Even in Tunisia, where women successfully fought for a new law requiring every party to include a woman in the first two slots of a party list, women comprise only 26 percent of the parliament because they were consistently placed second in districts where a party could win one seat.

And in Yemen, patriarchal tribal traditions appoint men in key political positions as the women without whom Yemen's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would not have been overthrown are pushed back into their homes. Similarly, in Libya, women are woefully underrepresented in the transitional council. 

Despite earning their rightful place at the table, Arab women have been relegated to the private sphere where their ability to make systemic change is significantly constrained. The need for change is real as exemplified in gender disparities in education, employment, and politics. According to the 2005 Human Development Report from the United National Development Programme, women in Arab countries suffer more than men from a lack of opportunities to acquire knowledge, even though girls outperform boys in competitive academic performance in those countries.

Similarly, less than one-third of Arab women aged 15 years and older are employed, in contrast to the world average of over one half. Arab women’s participation in the workplace does not exceed 42 percent, again the lowest rate in the world compared to a global average of 69 percent. And in politics, the proportion of women representatives in parliaments remains the lowest in the world at under 10 percent. This reality remains intact notwithstanding the revolutions.

Hence the revolutions in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, are far from over. In Egypt and elsewhere, bloggers, activists, and protesters must employ the same tenacity and courage exhibited during the revolution to create permanent places for women in high government office, political party leadership, media, and civil society. The grassroots networks created out of the revolution can be leveraged to call to task the new government and various political parties for failing to include women, beyond hollow gestures of tokenism, in leadership positions.

Moreover, the discourse should shift from a generic call for women’s rights to an explicit demand that women are proportionately included in all major decisionmaking bodies. In Egypt, through their meaningful participation, women can interject their various perspectives into processes that will shape the country's future.

Concurrent with these demands should be constitutional provisions enshrining equal rights; new election laws that level the playing field across class, religion, and gender; and reforms of unfair laws in marriage, divorce, property rights, and custody of children.

First, the Egyptian constitution should explicitly include men and women in all provisions addressing individual rights. This explicit reference to women minimizes the abuse of discretion by predominantly male legislators, the executive branch, and judges. To offset historical disparities in political representation and cultural barriers, a temporary quota for women in the parliament should be reinstated in election laws. When female legislators, judges, and political appointees become the norm, rather than the exception, then quotas can be removed. Similar reforms should be implemented in other Arab nations as well.

While legal reforms are no panacea, they can trigger the cultural transformation sought by the new generation of Arab women and men. Democracy, like revolution, is unsustainable in Egypt and the greater Middle East without inclusion of women. Indeed, studies show that a nation’s economic success is tied to women’s education, political empowerment, and ability to contribute their education and skills toward economic growth.

In the end, Egyptians and citizens in other Arab nations had their revolutions to create a better economic future for their children based on a democratic system of governance. This cannot be realized as long as women are barred from the decisionmaking table.

Sahar F. Aziz is an associate professor of law at Texas Wesleyan School of Law and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She also serves as the President of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.

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