In the “Arab Spring” countries in transition, women are now marginalized or excluded entirely from political bodies. Denial of one’s fundamental right to participate in the democratic process in one’s own country is one form of violence. Yet it is not, unfortunately, alone in the pattern of violence involving restrictions on women.
In much of the Muslim world today, when a Muslim woman speaks out or is qualified to take a leadership role, she is called “militant.” In a propaganda trap doubtlessly intended to cripple one politically – like so many others of its kind, such as “racist” – if a woman speaks in ways expected of a woman, she is seen as an inadequate leader; if she speaks in ways expected of a leader, she is seen as an inadequate woman. If you can dismiss the person, you can dismiss the issue.
During the revolutions and uprisings across the Arab world, violence targeting women has been reported frequently as committed by police, soldiers, and militia. There have even been accounts of violence against women by demonstrators.
The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in psychological harm or suffering to women.” Prohibitions on participation in the political, economic, and social decisions which will affect oneself and one’s family are a form of violence. Decisions about women made without consultation with women create psychological harm and suffering. Refusing women the right to support or oppose laws concerning them is a violent act against them.
I attended a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March and heard testimony about women’s rights being violated across the Middle East. That women’s rights continue to be usurped and that women continue to be dehumanized by Islamists is a reality and a horror.
Another international organization, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, has identified anti-women policies as a danger sign of spreading fundamentalism. These practices, whether they involve limitations on freedom of movement, on the right to education and employment, or imposition of discriminatory laws, under authoritarian and theocratic rule, represent a challenge for women to organize and act together. As Islamic fundamentalism is misogynistic, feminist input in debates about the future of Islam and Muslims is considered “provocative.” But Muslim women’s ever-greater political leadership in attaining freedom and gender equality is indispensable to defeating fundamentalism.
The first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist, recently said “My dear women: You have revolted from all over the country of Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria in order to construct a dignified life and a better future. Therefore, there is no way that we should bend down or go back.”
Many women hoped the so-called “Arab Spring” would bring changes to the Middle East to help them realize their dreams and secure a better life for the next generation of women through peaceful transitions away from dictatorship, and collaboration between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, government and civilians. But, as Karman also pointed out, “One of the necessities of partnership is for women to obtain their full rights. No dignity and no liberty for a nation which oppresses women and takes away their rights.”
Karman is a member of Al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has benefited most from the electoral aftermath of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. Her position may therefore be considered ambivalent: she is a female rebel within a revolutionary movement that historically has emphasized the subordination of women according to alleged “Islamic” concepts. The “new” MB has followed the model of its current Turkish patron, the neo-fundamentalist Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), in emphasizing an ostensible commitment to modern principles of equality and citizenship. But in practice, AKP has left its “moderate” promises behind as, recently, it proposed an educational reform that Turkish parents fear would encourage girls, in particular, to quit school after only four years.
For decades, Egyptian Muslim women suffered because divorce was not easy for them to obtain. But the right of women to initiate divorces in court actions (“khul”) was established under ex-president Mubarak. Recently, however, an independent member of the Egyptian parliament suggested limiting women’s right to initiate divorces. Mohamed al-Omda, deputy head of the People’s Assembly Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee has submitted a draft law that would abolish the prerogative of “khul.”