The female leaders of the Arab Spring aspired to bring about peaceful transition through collaboration between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, government and civilians. But for women in much of the region, oppression and violence are still constant facts of life

Raheel Raza, August 19, 2016

Since the Arab Spring, which quickly turned into the winter of discontent, the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has been of particular concern to human rights groups generally and to women’s rights activists specifically.

Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist, activist, and the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, said: “My dear women! You have revolted from all over the countries 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.”

Heroic words in an ideal world! There is no doubt that the movers and shakers behind the so-called Arab Spring were sharp, courageous, talented, passionate, and inspirational women who thought they would create change in the Middle East that would make their dreams come true and give the next generation of women a better future. They aspired to bring about peaceful transition through collaboration between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, government and civilians. But as Karman also points 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."

That women have been dehumanized and their rights usurped is the sad reality today. The rise of ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East has regressively impacted whatever rights women once enjoyed. ISIS’s ideology regarding Yazidi women is that they are to be used for “sex and service” for the men. Muslim women have to be segregated and isolated, with their rights and social mobility greatly restricted.

During the revolutions and uprisings across the Arab world, there were numerous reports of violence targeting women, committed by militia, soldiers, and police. Fellow demonstrators also perpetrated incidents of violence against women.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American award-winning columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues based in New York. Eltahawy reported extensively on the Egyptian uprising, urging women to stand up and speak out. Her passion led her to join protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 where she was sexually and physically assaulted. Her book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, speaks about the autonomy, security, and dignity of Muslim women.

In Syria, pro-regime forces have abducted women to spread fear within the population and there are many reports of rape, arbitrary detentions, torture, forced disappearances, and summary executions. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the United Nations ordered an international special commission of inquiry and continues to monitor the situation very closely. In 2014, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported that pro-government forces subjected women, men, and children to rape and sexual humiliation during arrest and detention.

In Libya, rape has been used as a weapon of war and the stigmatization of victims is such that they are condemned to silence. In Egypt, protesters sexually assaulted women who were participating in the demonstrations and the army forced several women protesters to undergo virginity tests.

Hanaa Edwar, head of the charity Al-Amal (“Hope” in Arabic), said: "Iraqi women suffer marginalization and all kinds of violence, including forced marriages, divorces, and harassment, as well as restrictions on their liberty, their education, their choice of clothing, and their social life.”

The position of women varies throughout the MENA according to levels of education, freedoms, and politics, and has been evolving. However, the religious insurgence of the 1970s reversed many of the strides that had been made towards progress and modernity, taking many women back to the Dark Ages.

The lives of Middle Eastern women are impacted by cultural, religious, and legal norms.   Changes in governments, economic strife, and the rise in extremism directly affect these women.

Some brilliant Middle Eastern academics have well documented these struggles for equality, education, and empowerment, and there are many grassroots movements working to bring about change from within.

Elham Manea is a Yemeni and Swiss political scientist specializing in the Arab Middle East, a writer, and a human rights activist. She has published academic and non-fiction books in English, German, and Arabic in addition to two novels in Arabic. Her latest book, Women and Shari’a Law, deals with the controversy and public debate about legal pluralism and multiculturalism. Manea argues against what she identifies as the growing tendency for people to be treated as “homogenous groups” in Western academic discourse, rather than as individuals with authentic voices.

Manea explains that official multiculturalism places ethnic communities in boxes, as though all Muslims are part of a monolith, or all blacks the same. She adds that multiculturalism ignores the fact that diversity and individual thought exist among members of minorities. For example, Canadian Muslims come from almost 60 different parts of the world and belong to diverse cultures and ethnicities. Yet, when the mainstream media discuss Muslims, it’s as though they are all the same. This type of generalization does a great disservice to Muslim communities.

Honour-based violence is another major factor that hugely impacts women’s lives in the MENA region.

According to a Pew Research poll done in 2013, large majorities of Muslims in the Middle East favour Sharia.  Among those who do, stoning women for adultery is accepted by 81 percent in Egypt, 67 percent in Jordan, 58 percent in Iraq, 44 percent in Tunisia, and 29 percent in Turkey.

Another Pew Research poll titled The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society showed that an average of 39 percent of Muslims surveyed think it is “sometimes justified” to kill a woman if she engages in premarital sex or adultery. This translates to 345 million people who share this barbaric belief.

In a study of honour killings in Egypt, 47 percent of the women were killed by a relative after the woman had been raped. In Jordan and Lebanon, 70 to 75 percent of the perpetrators of these so-called “honour killings” were the women’s brothers.

Here is the shocker: Part of article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code states that “he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty.”

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is another huge challenge for women in the MENA region. UNICEF estimates that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone genital mutilation, mainly in Africa and some Middle Eastern countries, while the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that three million girls a year are at risk of mutilation.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in … physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women ...” Not being able to partake in the political, economic, and social decisions which will affect oneself and one’s family appears as a form of violence. When women are not consulted in decision-making, they can suffer psychological harm. Not allowing women to oppose or agree to the laws enacted which directly concern them, is an act of violence against women.

The right to vote is essential and being denied it impedes women from participating in the making of laws that could protect them from all other forms of violence and discrimination.

In 2012 when Egypt’s first post-revolutionary constitution was being written, women were mostly sidelined. As a result, Egyptian women gained only 2 percent of seats in the elections. For decades, Egyptian Muslim women suffered because divorce was not  easy for them to access. Also in 2012, Mohamed al-Omda, an independent MP, joined the heated debate over women’s rights by suggesting a controversial draft law to limit the legal provisions for women to obtain divorce.

In Libya, ironically during Moammar Gadhafi’s rule, women had unlimited access to free education, thus giving both genders an equal opportunity. However, in 2013 Libya's grand mufti issued a fatwa (religious edict) stipulating that women can attend a university only if it is gender-segregated.  The same religious authority called for a woman to be accompanied by a guardian if she wishes to leave the country. As well, women faced setbacks when the National Transitional Council (NTC) adopted a law allocating only 10 percent of the seats to women in national elections, while leaving it to political parties how to allocate seats at the local level.

In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive or leave the country without a male guardian. The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia near the bottom — at 134th out of 145 countries — in its 2015 Global Gender Gap Index. It was only in December 2015 that Saudi women finally got the right to vote and run for office — and even then only in municipal elections. Since they can’t drive, the point is moot!

Many of these women are lobbying for nothing more than the right to have a say in their country’s politics, to be emotionally and intellectually liberated, and to participate in public life free from the fetters of oppression.

Some of the issues they face aren’t new. The United Nations Development Programme has done intensive research into the status of Middle Eastern women. Its statistics show the level of education among Arab women is the lowest in the Muslim world – this in a tradition which believes that educating one woman is like educating the entire nation.

Why is there so much resistance to women lobbying for their rights? It’s because the self-appointed caretakers of Muslim traditionalism feel threatened by the phenomenon of a significant number of women now being seen in public, a space normally thought of as for men only. They see emancipated Muslim women as negative symbols of Westernization.

Yet, there are rays of light in the darkness and great hope that the struggles of the activists, scholars, and academics will bear fruit, since women themselves will bring about change. In addition to the powerful women quoted in this article, many voices have been heard in the past year.

Fouzia Assouli is president of the Federation of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights, a Moroccan NGO that has been fighting for women’s rights for 40 years. She helped build a network of women activists, Femmes Solidaires (Women in Solidarity), involving hundreds of local associations across the country, to combat gender-based violence and to change policies.

Policies in the West affect the lives of women all over the world. The rise in honour-based violence led Canada to implement Bill S-7 and to declare that this country would not support “barbaric practices.”

Bill S-7, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, raised the national minimum marriage age to 16 and added forced marriage to the Criminal Code. It also toughened the laws around polygamy, with an eye to preventing immigration by those who engage in the practice and making it easier to deport polygamists. It also strengthened the rules around honour killings, so that the defence of provocation can no longer be used in court.

Initially, there was resistance to the use of the word “barbaric” but some women’s groups testified that cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and honour killings are barbaric indeed.

Similarly, many of the atrocities committed against women in the Middle East have been declared crimes in the Western world, which puts pressure on Middle Eastern governments also to implement changes.

For many years, organizations like Muslims Facing Tomorrow have been telling Western governments that they need to insist on more accountability from Middle Eastern theocrats and dictators – especially in terms of women’s rights. If Western governments give financial aid to any of these countries, that aid should be subject to audit, with the money spent on women’s education and to ensure their human rights are respected. At the same time, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which holds a large number of seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council, should be pressured to ensure that its UNHRC memberships are subject to equal rights being given to the women in those countries.

The Arab Spring was supposed to mean hope for a better life for women in the Middle East and North Africa. They will not “bend down or go back”. But they need our help.

Raheel Raza is a Munk Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. She is President of The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, founding member of The Muslim Reform Movement, and author of the book Their Jihad – Not My Jihad.