Arab awakening: What about women?

An attack in a liberated Egypt on a march for women's rights shows the challenge in carrying out complete revolutions in the region.

Tuesday’s attack on Egyptian protesters demanding equal rights for women should serve as a warning in the ongoing Arab awakening. Women must be included, otherwise the democratic uprisings in the region will amount to only half-revolutions.

What happened to protesters in Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day is a microcosm of the women’s movement in the Middle East and North Africa generally:

A few hundred women and some men – not the “the million-woman march” hoped for – publicly voiced demands for inclusion in building a democratic Egypt. They were met by a counterprotest of men who attacked and groped them. “Go home, go wash clothes,” yelled some of the men, according to a Monitor story. “This is against Islam,” said others.

As elsewhere in the region, Egyptian women want to protect their recent gains, such as being allowed to divorce their husbands. But they also want protection from all-too-common sexual harassment and violence. And they want to be able to participate in a new parliament and in drafting a new constitution.

Masses of women demonstrated alongside men during the 18-day revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak Feb. 11. Yet women were excluded from recently formed committees to amend the Constitution. Only one woman, a holdover from the Mubarak era, is in the federal government’s interim cabinet.

As in Egypt, so in the region, women are slowly gaining, according to a 2010 study of 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Compared with five years ago, women in these countries are more represented in the labor force. They have greater access to education and more of them are literate. They have made gains in political participation. But the region’s general gender gap – politically, economically, and socially – is still the worst in the world, according to the report by Freedom House, which tracks global democratic gains and losses.

How to move forward?

On a technical level, these countries need safe ways for women to file discrimination and abuse complaints, and for impartial courts to enforce equal rights.

But more fundamentally, attitudes – among women as well as men – must continue to change. That starts with showing women that granting their rights is good for them – for their economic freedom, their self-worth, their safety. Many women privately endorse greater freedoms, but hesitate to lobby publicly for them. They fear they may bring shame on their families.

Men’s fears, too, need to be addressed. They can be, when a wife, for instance, asks her husband how he might feel knowing that his mother is likely to be groped in public (nearly 50 percent of women in Egypt say they are sexually harassed daily in public – either physically or verbally).

Or what about a sister who explains to her brother that she could be fired, or not hired, simply because she is female? Working women in some of these countries now report that their marriage prospects have improved since they became breadwinners.

Still, many enlightened men and women see gender inequality as sanctioned by the Quran. And yet, feminist scholars of Islam are now interpreting the Quran through new eyes, finding support for equality. Muslim majority countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have elected women leaders.

Advocates for women must also be courageous and persistent. It took years of lobbying in Kuwait for women to be able to vote and run for office, as they were finally allowed to do in 2005. The same determination was needed in Jordan, which in 2009 set up a court to handle gender-based violence such as “honor” crimes.

Across the Arab world, people are yearning to throw off state despotism. Lifting the oppression of women naturally belongs to this struggle. It can’t be that freedom applies to only half the population.

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