The Precarious Position of Women and Minorities in Arab Spring Countries

Anyone fearing for women’s rights these days should have been at the third plenary session of Brookings’ U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha yesterday. On social change and the power of non-state actors, the panel pulled off a double whammy: both Tawwakul Karman and Zainah Anwar were present.

Karman is a Yemeni activist who founded Women Journalists without Chains. She is also the youngest Nobel Laureate ever and only the second female Muslim. She originally started campaigning for journalistic reform in 2007 and then continued to up the ante and was a pivotal figure in the protests that saw the fall of former President Aly Saleh. Her struggle is especially relevant in light of the fact that Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries with, according to UN metrics, the worst record on gender equality.

Anwar is Malaysian, a founder of Sisters in Islam and the Director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in Muslim countries.

It is one of those sad dichotomies of life that Islam is a religion which has accorded myriad rights and privileges to women but that Muslim-majority countries have a poor track record on gender equality. The Arab Spring revolts initially held great promise for women, who were at the forefront of demonstrations and fighting in every one of the countries touched by the upheavals. Since then, women feel there has been a steady movement to shove them to the back of the line.

In some cases, this is a literal comment: in Yemen’s Change Square, the epicenter of the revolt, there used to be a rope sectioning off the men from the women during the demonstrations. It’s now a wooden platform with a metal door. Women in some countries feel they have more to lose than others. Tunisia has been at the forefront of regional gender equality; its 1956 personal status code granted equality to men and women and legalized divorce and abortion- 19 years before abortion was legal in France, which Tunisia is often accused of following blindly. The post-revolutionary parliamentary elections saw women making up 28% of the national assembly (48% of the bloc gained by the Islamist party Ennahda). However, women fear that the Islamists will start to curtail their freedoms.

In Egypt, women have even more to worry about. They make up a miserable 2 percent of the People’s Assembly. Among the female deputies, Azza AL-Garf has become a national celebrity for her pronouncement on women’s duties. For women, she favors female genital mutilation and embroidery. There has been a steady stream of attempts to overturn legislation perceived to be in women’s favor. Among them is a divorce law granted in Islam which took over 1400 years to see the light of day in Egypt. It allows a woman an uncontested divorce and Islamists claim that it tears at the fabric of society and was only passed to please former first lady Suzanne Mubarak. They were stymied by both Al-Azhar’s legislation department and the Shariah legislation department of the Constitutional Court which both affirmed that the law was Islamic and constitutional. The National Council for Women, a governmental body, is constantly under attack for ‘undermining the fabric of society,’ clusters of bearded men often picketing silently outside its gates.

The assault on liberties is not limited to gender. In the midst of economic, social and political upheaval, minority rights are in serious danger. The excuse often given is, considering the long list of very real dangers, civil liberties are a luxury, not a priority. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, an estimated 10% of the population, are feeling threatened by the rising Islamist tide. Following the presidential elections, there were what can only be construed as attempts to stir up more sectarian strife, by claiming that Egypt’s Copts had voted en masse for former Mubarak aide and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, thereby selling out the revolution. The claims conveniently ignored the fact that the greatest number of Shafik votes came from the Delta region, which has a minimal Coptic electorate. The governorates with the highest Coptic presence were one by the Nasserite candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi and the Muslim Brotherhood and leading candidates, Mohamed Mursi.

Other religious minorities, like Egypt’s tiny Shiaa or Bahaai populations are likely to feel even more threatened.

The rights of women and minorities are not luxuries. They are not matters that may be safely put away until one has the time to deal with them. They are intrinsic to the fabric of any stable, democratic society and if the countries of the Arab Spring truly want, or deserve, democracy then they must concentrate on citizenship, rather than populism. Listening to Karman and Anwar speak, I was struck by the fact that those wishing to marginalize women are likely to find it much more difficult to do than it was to unseat despotic regimes. It remains to be seen whether the same will hold true for minorities.