Women can't be airbrushed out of Arab Spring

Like IKEA's deletion of photos of women from its catalog for Saudi Arabia, Muslim countries now creating democracies can't leave out women's rights while creating civic rights.

Henrik Montgomery/Scanpix Sweden/AP Photo
Someone holds an Oct. 1 newspaper with images from the Swedish and Saudi Arabian IKEA furniture catalog, with one photo showing a woman deleted.

IKEA just gave new meaning to the phrase “some assembly required.” The chain store has airbrushed images of women from its new furniture catalog for Saudi Arabia so as not to offend hard-line Islamists. Women in that Muslim country will now need to imagine themselves using IKEA furniture.

The Swedish store’s action – which it has since regretted for violating its values against gender discrimination – nonetheless is a welcome reminder that women in many Arab countries still find themselves fighting for basic rights. And in Muslim countries newly liberated from dictators, the battle is taking place in assemblies currently writing constitutions for the young democracies.

In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, hard-line Islamic leaders seek wording in the draft constitutions that they say would reflect sharia (Islamic) law on divorce, marriage, and many other social areas. Their moves have triggered protests and outrage among women’s groups who want to retain the rights of equality that they had under the old secular rule or to add new ones.

In unliberated Saudi Arabia, too, this tug of war is playing out as the ruling monarchy takes small steps on women’s issues, such as granting women the right to vote or to work in retail stores with male shoppers. This past summer, Saudi Arabia sent its first female athletes to the Olympics. These actions are driven in part by pressure to reduce high unemployment among women and to quell pro-democracy dissent.

The liveliest debate is in Cairo, where a 100-seat constituent assembly is now writing a draft constitution. Members who are Salafi Islamists are pushing an article that would lower the marriage age below 18. Critics say this would condone forced child marriages, an old custom for many Muslims.

The Salafists, who are more fundamentalist than the dominant Muslim Brotherhood, also seek to make divorce harder for women and to break from Egypt’s past endorsement of international treaties on the rights of women and children.

In general, they want gender equality only if it is not “in breach of the rulings of Islamic law.”

In Tunisia, women have held protests against a proposed article for a constitution that calls women “complementary” to men. Such wording would assign set roles for women and not allow equality.

These potential setbacks for women run counter to the spirit of the Arab Spring, which aims to treat individuals as equally worthy and self-governing. They also set back the hope of economic revival by limiting women’s role in the economy.

“Tunisia, Egypt and even oil-rich Libya simply cannot afford to disempower half their population,” states Isobel Coleman of the Council of Foreign Relations in an editorial for the publishing website of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Many Muslim scholars say Islam actually calls for equal rights. Their views need to be heard in these assemblies. Even in Western countries, companies like IKEA can’t just go along with interpretations of Islam that keep women in subjection.

The Arab world’s awakening on civic rights must not leave women’s rights behind.

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