Across the Arab world, a 'Women’s Spring' comes into view

Legislative advances for women in Tunisia and Jordan may soon be followed by measures in Lebanon and Iraq. A quiet revolution has drawn on women’s increased participation in politics and the improved flow of ideas across borders.

Reem Saad/AP
Women protest in front Jordan's Parliament in Amman Aug. 1, 2017 with banners calling on legislators to repeal a provision that allowed a rapist to escape punishment if he married his victim. Parliament voted to repeal the provision that day. The banner in the middle reads: Article 308 is a disgrace to the Jordanian justice system. The banner on the left reads: Article 308 does not protect honor, it protects the culprit.

The changes were as radical as they were swift. On July 26, Tunisia voted to criminalize sexual harassment and discrimination against women. On Aug. 1, Jordan’s Parliament voted to scrap a law that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims.

Lebanon and Iraq now look to follow suit later this year and end their marry-your-rapist laws and criminalize violence against women.

As sudden as these victories for women’s rights may seem, they are not an unanticipated wave of change. Rather, they are the result of a quiet women’s revolution taking part in the Arab world that has been decades in the making and has drawn on women’s increased participation in politics and a revolution in cross-border communication, especially in social media.

Now, as other Arab countries look to repeal similar repressive laws, lawmakers and community leaders are setting their sights on building on those gains, including equal pay in the workplace.

In Jordan, activists have been working to repeal Article 308 – the marry-the-rapist clause – for two decades; but the most recent attempt in 2013 only gathered two dozen signatures in Parliament. In Tunisia, for years after the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab spring, women’s rights activists saw the proposed law stall time and again.

Women MPs

Yet both Jordan and Tunisia have experienced an important development: an increased number of women elected to parliamentary bodies.

Jordan’s 2016 elections saw women grab 20 of Parliament’s 130 seats, the highest proportion of women ever, in an election that fielded a record 252 female candidates. In Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in 2014, women were elected to 31 percent of the parliament’s seats – the highest percentage of any Arab country and more than in France.

Activists and experts say many of these women members of Parliament (MPs) used their positions to lobby their governments, cajole colleagues, and introduce debates over issues that lawmakers previously had been unwilling to address.

“Women and the civil society expect us to take the first steps, to drive these issues forward, and encourage progress in human rights and women’s rights,” says Wafa Bani Mustafa, a Jordanian MP who led the campaigns to scrap article 308 in 2013 and 2017.

“Not all women MPs are on board,” she says, “but those of us that were willing, answered this call.”

In Iraq, 25 percent of parliamentarians are women, while in Lebanon a mere 3 percent are.

Contributions from NGOs

Aiding the cause was the establishment of dozens of local, national, and nongovernmental organizations advocating for Arab women throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. These groups gave a channel and lobbying arm for those who supported advancing Arab women’s rights, giving them a “voice at the table” by allowing them to interact with and pressure MPs, the government, and local communities.

In Jordan, the Jordanian Women’s Union, Mizan Law Group for Human Rights, and the Jordanian chapter of Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI) – all worked to change perceptions in towns and villages by providing statistics on gender-based violence and the personal cases of women wronged by the law or forced to marry their rapist.

In Tunisia, the revolution allowed for an explosion of women’s rights groups, such as the League of Tunisian Women Voters and Aswat Nissan, taking up specific causes, including encouraging women candidates and strategic voting. Some 700 civil society organizations work on gender issues in Tunisia.

These new groups pushed for changes in laws and discriminatory practices that left women vulnerable to violence or at the mercy of their husbands.

“In the mid-90s and early 2000s, we started raising topics you never heard about in public and in the press, such as topics of rape, honor crimes, violence against women, abortion,” says Rana Husseini, a veteran journalist and women’s activist who spearheaded campaigns to end so-called honor killings in Jordan. 

Arab women activists faced an uphill battle. Opponents – ranging from tribal leaders to nationalists and Islamists – accused women activists of supporting a “Western agenda,” and accused women’s rights groups of attempting to undermine centuries of culture and traditions.

“Our traditions and culture call for respect for women, and our religions do not call for killing, for people to appoint themselves as judge and executioner. We fought for two decades to make that case to the public,” Ms. Husseini said.

Sharing lessons learned

Over the past decade, another important development strengthened the women’s movement: cross-border solidarity.

Regional groups such as the Coalition of Arab Women MPs Combatting Violence Against Women, Karama, and the Arab Women Parliamentarians Forum increased cooperation between Arab women activists and MPs battling to amend or cancel draconian laws in their home countries. For the first time, Arab women activists coordinated their strategies and learned from each other’s successes and failures.

“A woman from Jordan learns from Morocco, a woman from Iraq learns from Tunisia, and it goes on – the ability for Arab women to exchange ideas and strategies has been important,” says Hibaaq Osman, the director of Karama and two other regional Arab women’s rights groups.

Women’s advancements in Arab countries, the vast majority having inherited similar laws imported by Western colonial powers and upheld by conservative social forces, have had a “domino effect,” emboldening each other, activists say.

“We started saying, ‘Why can’t we end article 308 in Jordan, when Egypt has done it in 1999, Morocco in 2014, Tunisia in 2017, and there are motions happening in Lebanon and Iraq?” says Hala Ahed, a legal consultant at the Jordan Women’s Union.

“Women’s rights activists can now say; it has been done elsewhere in the Arab world, why not here?”

Women’s Spring

The groundwork laid in the 1990s and early 2000s left women rights activists poised to take advantage of two important revolutions at the beginning of this decade: the Arab Spring and social media.

Despite proving unable to throw off the yoke of authoritarianism across the Arab world, the popular uprisings in 2011 – in part organized and driven by women – showed Arab women that they could mobilize and reach out to supporters and the public even with the most limited resources.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, select tribal leaders, conservative Islamists, and clerics spoke in the name of citizens, Muslims, and men in general. Arab regimes and monarchies deferred to these groups, which they often relied on for support, as the voice of the people.

Now, social media has broken their monopoly, exposing bastions of support for women’s rights in often the most unexpected places.

Bedouin tribesmen, men in rural villages, devout women, and imams have all come out in support of ending discriminatory laws and advancing women’s rights during the Jordanian and Tunisian campaigns and even in conservative Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.

The ability of average citizens to have their say has completely changed the debate – and put greater pressure on those arguing to maintain such laws out of respect for “culture and tradition.”

“Social media has given a voice to citizens who were previously blocked out of the debate – and it turns out that the majority are for an end to these discriminatory laws,” says Ms. Ahed, the legal consultant.

“Seeing citizens of all walks of life voice their support, decision-makers are no longer shying away from women’s rights.”

“Women’s rights are human rights, which affect every family,” says Mohammed Suleiman, a 22-year resident of Irbid, in northern Jordan.  

“If we allow rapists to take away the rights of one woman, they take away the rights of all of us.”

“Women’s rights are part of our Arab and Islamic culture, not something imported,” says Reem Ali, an Amman housewife, who was for scrapping the measure.  

“We are asking to have our rights restored, not for a revolutionary change.”

Gulf progress lacking

But the wave of women’s activism rocking much of the Arab world is barely making ripples in Gulf Arab states, where patriarchal societies, a lack of political freedoms, and a strict interpretation of Islam are preventing any action from taking hold.

In Saudi Arabia, women are still subjected to the guardianship system, under which women are required to have the permission of a male relative or husband to travel, change residence, access health care, marry, or even be given employment.

In a lone bright spot in Saudi Arabia, Maryam Otaibi, an activist leading calls for the end to the guardianship system, was released from prisons in July after being held for fleeing her family home without her father’s permission. Her release without a male guardian was hailed by activists as a step toward moving away from the system.

In the UAE, a version of the guardianship system exists, there are no formal laws against violence against women, and women who are sexually assaulted face difficulty in reporting charges, Human Rights Watch reports.

But even in conflict-hit Arab states, the seeds of women activism – and future change – are being planted.

In Syria, where prior to the revolution there was not a single women’s civil society group, there are now hundreds of organizations working across the country on gender-related issues.

In Libya, following the overthrow of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, women formed the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace and pushed for an election law that allowed fair representation of women in parliament. To this day, under the threat of assassination and kidnapping, women are working for an end to conflict and a return to the rule of law.

In Jordan, activists have their sights set on legal loopholes that allow for reduced charges in honor crimes and on women’s inability to pass on citizenship to children born to a foreign father. Women’s unemployment in Jordan and Tunisia, which stand at 33 percent and 27 percent, respectively, are another cause.

In Tunisia and Jordan, women activists say they will continue monitoring, campaigning, and pressuring authorities to make sure their hard-fought gains are applied in the courts and on the ground.

“Arab women no longer are going to come to the table where they are expected to act as the table cloth,” says Karama’s Ms. Osman. “They are going to come because they are a force to reckon with.”

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