Women played an essential role in the Arab uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa all through last year. Yet as countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya go through transitions, women are being marginalized and their rights sacrificed, several surveys and analysts say.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch and editor of a new book, The Unfinished Revolution, says preexisting conditions of discrimination against women in many of these countries have been one of the biggest obstacles for change. Many harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, she says, "take place with a veneer of religious approval." At the same time, repression of political Islam, such as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has also harmed human rights over time, she adds.
"There is some reason to hope," Worden says, that these Islamist parties, who stood with women calling for change last year, will now support their rights. However, she injects a note of caution from the experience of activists like Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who were at the front lines of the Iranian revolution in 1979, yet found the post-revolutionary state enacting laws that discriminated against women.
The transitions to electoral democracy in several Arab countries present an opportunity not just to tackle proportional political representation for women, but also harmful traditional practices, Worden says. She recommends the international community turn the spotlight on these issues and work with local rights groups who are pushing for more space for women and have the advantage of being trusted by local society.