Arab women’s empowerment will have to wait till there is political will
Democracy and equal rights, including the rights of women, were at the core of the demand of the protesters who took to the streets during the “Arab spring” uprisings of the Middle East and North Africa. Women have been an integral part of the revolutions, demonstrating and marching alongside men, in national movements that raised their expectations for a greater empowerment.
But again, they were excluded from the ensuing political process and deprived of their share of the gains, mainly due to the lack of political will to empower them, according to Samira Atallah, director of the Centre for Women at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
“Women were extremely active and visible in these revolutions. They were an important part of this overwhelming national push for change that encompassed many issues, including gender equality and female empowerment,” Atallah told The Arab Weekly. “Then came the reality and they were typically excluded from sharing the results.”
With or without conflict, women will always remain “outside the game”, Atallah said. They were not part of the decision-making process in peace time and were not involved in the creation of conflict. “In post-conflict situation, the same trend (of excluding them) continues,” she said.
In many instances, the pro-democracy revolutions backlashed at women’s rights, jeopardising the little progress that had been previously achieved, Atallah explained, in reference to Tunisia and Egypt.
Although in Tunisia, women’s determination succeeded in reversing the tide, when they voted heavily in last year’s legislative and presidential elections against Islamist candidates. “If anything, this shows the fragility of women’s rights,” she added. Dalenda Largueche, director of Tunisia’s Research, Studies and Information Centre on Women, acknowledged the challenge posed by the revolution on Tunisian women’s rights. “It was the first time since the promulgation of the code of personal status (in 1956) that women had to face their destiny and confront a debate about their equal rights,” she said in comments to The Arab Weekly.
However, the “new reality” emboldened women, who fought for their rights “and proved that not everything is irreversible”. “We have seen that women’s rights were eventually reinforced in the second constitution, which was endorsed in January ,” Largueche noted.
During the discussion of the constitution, Islamist members of the Constituent Assembly tried in 2011 to substitute the notion of complementary to that of gender equality. Mobilisation of civil society and secular parties thwarted the attempt at diluting women’s rights.
For Jordanian human rights activist Rana Husseini the “Arab spring” reforms dealt a setback to women’s rights in many Arab countries, including Jordan.
“We find officials less bold to talk about women’s rights and on many occasions they succumbed to conservatives’ demands not to empower women in the society,” Husseini said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“But things began to improve slowly, though way below our aspirations because there will always be certain considerations and calculations by politicians when it comes to women,” she added.
Arab countries ranked the lowest in the world in terms of women’s empowerment in the political and economic spheres, despite big achievements in education for Arab women. “We don’t see the great achievement at the educational level being translated into greater participation at the economic level or in the political sphere,” Atallah noted.
She said a combination of cultural, social and legal reasons in addition to the patriarchal mentality in the Arab society have inhibited women’s empowerment. “A common aspect is the perception that women’s work is not a necessity but only to complement man’s work, and that women’s primary place and role is at home, with the family,” the UN official said.
Even when their income is needed, institutional barriers prevent women from staying economically active, she said. These include inadequate maternity protection, discrimination in labour policies, gender inequality and the absence of legislation to protect women from sexual harassment.
“It is not an enabling environment to push women into the workforce. The problem lies in both, the legislations and the mentality, because at the end of the day legislation mirrors the people’s principles and values,” Atallah added.
In Jordan, quotas for women improved their representation in parliament and government. There are five ministers and 18 members of parliament in the present administration. “It is a good temporary solution until people get used to having women in such decision-making posts and are convinced that they can be important players, same as their male peers,” Husseini said.
But the most immediate challenge for women in the Arab world is the one facing women in conflict situations, Atallah stressed. Hundreds of thousands of Arab women, men and children in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa are directly affected by wars. But women and children are more vulnerable than men, being physically threatened and suffering continuous humiliation and abuse of their rights.
Whether refugees in foreign states or displaced inside their own country, women are confronted with sexual abuse, deprivation and marginalisation. This would cause permanent damage to their mental and physical health and could have severe consequences for generations to come, Atallah observed.
“What we know is awful but what we do not know is even worse,” she said. Although the United Nations has no accurate data about the violations committed against women in war-torn countries, especially Syria, there is an increasing evidence of child marriages and girls being exploited economically and sexually, in addition to trafficking of children, notably girls.
Conflicts, which have been sweeping the Arab region for the past few years, have definitely adversely affected the conditions of women. “Today, it is a different situation from what we were like a decade ago,” Atallah argued. “We were already at a bad starting point in many countries when it comes to women’s rights, making some progress here and there but today a lot of this progress is gone.”
Achieving a meaningful level of gender equality and women’s empowerment in Arab countries is still a far-fetched goal.
“However, we have something to build on,” Atallah noted. “The capacities and the means are there but what is lacking is the political will and commitment to bring about permanent change.”