News / Middle East

Will Women Benefit from Middle East Revolution?

Part of an ongoing series about women and the challenges they face across the world

When the dust of Egypt's revolution began to settle and the country struggled toward a democratic government, many of the women who stood side-by-side with men in Cairo's Tahrir Square were struck that not one woman was named to the committee to reform the constitution.

Prominent Egyptian author and activist Nawaal el-Saadawi says that angered women who marched on equal footing with men to oust former President Hosni Mubarak - only to find themselves thrown back to the old ways and excluded from the new order. She said the women felt their rights were being taken from them.

Egyptian novelist, essayist and physician Nawaal el-Saadawi. Her feminist works focus on the oppression of women and women's desire for self-expression
Egyptian novelist, essayist and physician Nawaal el-Saadawi. Her feminist works focus on the oppression of women and women's desire for self-expression

"Women’s rights cannot be given ... We have to take [them] by the political power of women," she said. "And that’s why we are reestablishing our Egyptian Women Union."

Al-Saadawi says women were scattered, weak and divided under the former regime and efforts are under way to unite them.

"So we are trying to bring women together to have political power so that we can fight for our rights in a collective group," al-Saadawi explained.

Fears of being excluded also echoed in neighboring Tunisia among many of the women who participated in the revolution to oust the Ben-Ali regime. Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations says Tunisian women worry about the return to power of some of the more conservative elements might try to repeal Tunisia's progressive family laws.

Coleman notes that Iraq saw a similar situation a few years ago, when the country's new government tried to rescind the family law that had been in place under the Baathist regime for a long time and replace it with religious law.  Many Iraqi women favored the implementation of Islamic law, says Coleman, while others feared it would mean a regression of their rights.

But it remains unclear how women will benefit from revolutionary change in the Middle East. Coleman says the first consequence has been the "fall of more secular-oriented governments that have used their authoritarian power to push through, often against the wishes of powerful voices within the country, more progressive rights for women."

She says governments are now going to have grapple with the possible resurgence of Islamists. "And women's rights will be a very clear litmus test of whether they are finding compatibility between Islam and democracy or not," noted Coleman.

Crucial to finding that compatibility is a clear definition of women's roles in society. The problem, says Shadi Hamid, a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, is that there is no clear consensus around the role women should play, particularly in Arab society. That is partially due to the perception that women's rights are more of a Western concept.

"And that's why we see the odd phenomenon in some countries of Arab women working against their own supposed 'rights,' " explained Hamid. "And we see this, for example, in some of the Gulf countries where women have actually advocated against being given the right to vote or have not been in favor of, supposedly, pro-Western reform."

Cheryl Benard, a Senior Analyst with the RAND Corporation, says there are women who have made a "generations-long bargain" with the existing society, where they accept that they are going to be in an inferior position, and they believe that, in exchange for that, they get something.

"They get security. They get the shelter of their relatives taking care of them," said Benard. "So those women, I think, are, in part, afraid of change because they are afraid of what it will mean if that traditional, conservative protection maybe falls away and they have to be in charge of themselves."

Benard says that fear is less prevalent among the young and educated urban populations, leaving a gap between rural and urbal populations. Equally pronounced are the gaps that stand out in education, political participation and labor in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2010.

Click tabs and mouse over countries for more information:


The report also reveals some interesting extremes. Women in the United Arab Emirates, for example, surpass men in educational attainment by two points, but lag behind men in Yemen by about 36 percentage points.

But the Rand Corporation's Benard cautions that the statistics don't tell the whole story. She says the overall, long-term picture is promising. For example, countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia no longer publish grades at universities because the women are so far ahead of the men that they don’t want to embarrass the men.

"Yes there are countries where women lag behind, where they are more of the illiterates compared to men. But if you look at it generationally, first of all it tends to be often not really true anymore of the younger women," Benard said. "And if you look at it regionally - urban vs. rural areas - it’s also not quite true. There have been a lot of changes going on and women have actually even pulled ahead of men in the educational field in some areas. The same is true economically."

But progress in education has not been matched on the political front. Women parliamentarians remain absent in places like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their share of cabinet positions in most other countries is contingent on a quota-based system.

"There are a couple different models here," says Hamid of Brookings. "One model ... that you’ve seen in Morocco and Jordan, is where the regime, or in this case the monarchies, ignore popular opinions and effectively impose changes in the sphere of women’s participation."

Hamid says the majority opinion is not very supportive of a very visible role for women. "And that's why when there aren't quotas in the political system, women have immense difficulties winning even the smallest number of seats in parliamentary elections."

Top-down efforts, says Hamid, don’t have the support of the larger population. Many people don't feel comfortable voting women into senior positions, and not all women are in favor of women's empowerment. He says a lot of women's empowerment efforts come from the secular, elite side of society, which is a minority in Arab society.

"The population will go along with it, but it’s not really based on a cultural shift," he said. "It’s not based on a shift in attitudes. And without that shift in attitudes at the grassroots level, change is not going to be deep or sustainable ... The question is how do you initiate a grassroots process in favor of women’s empowerment?"

A protester carries a sign referring to ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak during a demonstration against Mubarak in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut, Feb 5, 2011
A protester carries a sign referring to ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak during a demonstration against Mubarak in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut, Feb 5, 2011

As democracy begins to emerge in the Middle East, Hamid says women and liberal groups advocating their rights will have greater political space and room to make their voices heard.

"We have to question the whole premise that equal rights in the Western sense, is something that all societies would like and want to fight for," he cautioned. "And it appears to be the case that Arab societies aren’t willing to go all the way to where the West is ... I think everyone supports women’s empowerment. But I think it means different things to different people."

While Benard of the RAND Corporation agrees that the region has to find its own formula for women's empowerment, she says the women and their families who participated in the revolutions embody a change in Middle Eastern women that has disspelled some of the Western misconceptions.

"This is quite a different picture of the role of women in the Middle East ... where one thought that the families were all ultra-conservative, [that] they don’t want the women to be out and about, [that] they don’t think that the public space is something appropriate for women," Benard said. "That is not what we have seen. We’ve also seen women ... online, taking a leadership role often and organizing this and calling for things to happen."

So how will Middle Eastern women shape their own future in the new order?

The populations of the region are able to determine their own destiny, says Benard, and are more capable than they are given credit for. "Sometimes, she says, "the best thing you can do for somebody is [to] get out of their way."

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs