An “Arab Winter” for Women after the “Arab Spring”?

An “Arab Winter” for Women after the “Arab Spring”?©Fatma Elzahraa Yassin/UN
Women line up to vote in Egypt's 2011 elections
3 min 53Approximate reading time

Arab women had hoped revolutions in their countries would bring them greater freedom. But as they face economic hardship, forced exile, sexual violence, early marriage and human trafficking, their situation has regressed in the five years since the “Arab Spring”. Only in Tunisia have women been relatively spared from the decline in their rights and freedoms.

Women played a spectacular part in the uprisings and revolutions that shook the Arab world at the beginning of 2011. In countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Morocco and Yemen they took to the streets, bravely confronting pitiless authoritarian regimes. Women of all ages and social classes were in the frontline of the demonstrations, calling “Get Out!” Their hopes were high. Many of them thought the advent of democracy and political freedom would also bring them independence and emancipation.

But what have they gained in the five years since the start of the “Arab Spring”? This was one of the questions raised in Barcelona on April 14 and 15 at a meeting organized by the Mediterranean Network of Women in Information and Communication, an organization initiated by independent women journalists in Catalonia. Media professionals and civil society activists taking part came from countries including Morocco, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia.

The Tahrir generation 

On January 25, 2011, Egyptian women took over a public space that was still patrolled by Mubarak’s police, calling for equality and respect of their rights. Yet the regimes that took power after the revolution have not met the demands they made for days and nights on Tahrir Square.

Five years after the revolutions, living conditions for women in the Arab region have not improved at all, with the exception of Tunisia – and even there, all is not rosy, given the economic difficulties and social violence that hit women hardest. On the contrary, women’s situation has actually worsened, especially in those countries racked by armed conflict. Women suffer multiple forms of violence, are forced to flee because of civil wars and religious extremism, are disappeared, tortured, forced into child marriage and trafficked into slavery. Everywhere, women are the first victims of the geopolitical upheavals resulting from the “Arab Spring”.

Lamia Mohamed [not her real name] is a Syrian of Palestinian origin. She tells how some of her family were killed by government bombing and others were kidnapped by the regime. Many of her friends are in jail, she says, where “one day is equal to a life of suffering. The torturers are merciless towards women”. Like four million other Syrians, this young woman now lives in exile in Barcelona as a refugee. “But for how long?” she wonders.

In Libya, the situation remains unstable with rival factions still at war. During the eight-month revolution of 2011, many women were raped as part of the repression by forces of former president Muammar Gaddafi. But in February 2014, the Libyan government approved a decree to protect and compensate victims of rape. It grants them the right to social, legal, financial and medical support, allowing them to regain their place in society. This is a victory, if only a small one, for organizations working on women’s rights in Libya.  

Cosmetic changes 

Under pressure from protesters, there have been some constitutional and legislative reforms in several countries including Morocco and Jordan. These reforms have strengthened gender equality, at least on paper, in the basic laws. But in the Moroccan Family Code (moudawana), for example, provisions on the status of women like those allowing polygamy and repudiation have not been removed. Girls continue to be married off at between 13 and 15. The Code also does not tackle domestic violence, which is rife in Morocco.

“More than ever in our history, we feel there has been a major decline in the perspectives for advancing women’s rights,” says Egyptian journalist Randa Achmawi. “In the first parliament of 2012, dominated by Islamists and Salafists, women were not completely absent. But they expressed opinions that went against women’s rights, defending excision, for example. They perpetuated the sexist ideology of their parties.”

In Egypt, says Randa Achmawi, “since the revolution male politicians have continued to use women like they have always done. General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi presented himself as the saviour of women’s rights and so got support from an electorate in which women are the majority. But he has only made cosmetic changes to their status.”

Civil society action

Randa Achmawi nevertheless has confidence in the “Tahrir generation”, young people of both sexes that the revolution has awakened, transformed and filled with an unshakeable political consciousness. “They are the agents of change from the bottom up,” she says. “Many of them are now working as part of civil society on development, health and women’s rights projects all across Egypt, even if the authorities slander them, freeze their assets and make their lives impossible.”

It was an active, creative and strong civil society, veritable watchdog of the Tunisian transition, that saved the country’s women from the worst.  Islamists who had a majority in the post-dictatorship parliament of December 2011 wanted the new Constitution to be based on Sharia law. Tunisian women were alarmed. Tunisia published a Code as early as 1956 that gave women rights unprecedented in the Muslim world. It granted women the right to to choose with regard to their own bodies, their children and their future. The Islamists wanted to replace “equality between men and women”, enshrined in the 1959 Tunisian Constitution, with “complementarity between men and women”. As a result, thousands of men and women took to the main street of the capital on August 13, 2012, the country’s national day. For the angry marchers, people were trying to get rid of one of the fundamental tenets of Tunisian society. The majority was forced to backtrack, because of pressure from the street. The Constitution of January 27, 2014 provides for equality between men and women, and even goes so far as to talk about “parity” in future elections.

Many observers think civil society must remain vigilant. In a country where democracy is still fragile, the way constitutional provisions on the rights of women are interpreted will depend on the balance of power and on the male politicians who lead Tunisia. Nothing has yet been really won!