IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2013



Geographical Overview

Strategic Sectors


Situation and Role of Women in the New Context of the Political Transitions in the Arab World

Sophie Bessis

Research Associate
Institut des relations internationales et stratégiques (IRIS), Paris

What is the role of women in the turmoil gripping the Arab world today? Whereas the Tunisian revolution of 2011 gave an image of a country with gender parity, the war in Libya was a male war, as is the one taking place in Syria today. In Egypt, they were sent back to the home although they had actively participated in the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo in February 2011. Indeed, one can measure the progress of democracy in the countries concerned by the role played by women in the protest movements and the fate reserved for them by the new regimes being established. The issue of women is a barometer of the nature of the transitions underway in the Arab world.

Women in the Revolutions

On 14 January 2011 in Tunis, the crowd gathering on Bourguiba Avenue consisted of a mixture of both men and women, some of whom were veiled, marching with the men like everyone else. In the preceding weeks, at the protests that ignited the country, women were on the front lines in all cities, inciting the protesters or marching with them.

In Libya on 15 February 2011, the first protest against the regime was organised by the mothers, wives and sisters of the prisoners massacred in 1996 at the Abu Salim Prison. Then during the war they took care of things behind the scenes, and that is never shown. Since the country’s liberation, they seem to have been chased from the street.

In February 2011 on Tahrir Square, Cairo, there were women everywhere. They were also protesting to demand the departure of Hosni Mubarak, but they were less in number than in Tunis and the majority of them were wearing veils. Gender parity is less accepted in the Egyptian capital.

They were also seen in Syria, where they even organised a brief women’s protest in Damascus in May 2011. The regime repressed them just like it did male protesters. But the war, the sectarianisation of the conflict and the emergence of radical Islamists has rendered them nearly invisible.

In Sanaa and Bahrain, they were also there, but covered in black and strictly separated from the men. Here also, crowds demanded reforms, but not all reforms. Gender equality or at least the end of gender apartheid is not on the agenda of the so-called democratic forces.

On 21 February 2011, a constitutional committee was formed in Egypt to devise a reform of the Constitution. No women were present. One hundred and seventeen women’s and human rights organisations protested, in vain. On 8 March 2011, the first international women’s day after the fall of the dictatorship, a protest took place in Tahrir Square. A group of women and men brandished slogans on gender equality, demanding a constitution guaranteeing the rights and liberties of every citizen, regardless of gender, origin or religious beliefs. Only thirty minutes later, a male counter-protest appeared. They cried: “Go home and make us something to eat”, “The Constitution will not be secular.” Many women were brutalised. The army intervened, taking many of them back to military premises, where they suffered the worst brutality: 18 arrested women have testified to having been tortured, threatened with being reported for prostitution and subjected to physical virginity tests.

In April 2011 in Tunis, the High Commission for the Realisation of the Revolution’s Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition, a sort of transitional parliament entrusted with preparing the elections scheduled for 23 October 2011, adopted an electoral code stipulating that candidate lists had to have gender parity alternating male and female candidates. This was a first in the Arab world. The penalty stipulated was a first in the entire world: any lists not abiding by the gender parity rule would be rejected by the Electoral Commission. However, considering the strong resistance to gender parity, above all in the most traditional areas, only 7% of the 1500 or so heads of candidate lists were women. This said, the proportion of women in the Constituent Assembly is not insignificant, with 27.2% of the seats. Since then, however, the draft Constitution drawn up by an Assembly dominated by Islamists has retracted the parity condition.

In May 2011 in Rabat, under the pressure of feminist movements, the Moroccan government lifted its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It likewise ratified the Optional Protocol allowing women who are the victims of rape to file claims before an international court. This decision means that the Sharifian Kingdom will have to introduce equality between men and women into their legislation. Yet the Constitution approved by referendum on 1 July 2011 is contradictory: it stipulates gender equality while continuing to consider Islam as the State religion and does not recognise the primacy of international legislation contradicting the Kingdom’s fundamental principles.

What do these few images and facts that we have singled out indicate? First of all, that women have participated in all the protest movements that have been gripping the Arab world for more than two years, but not in the same manner. And above all, that the transitions underway are far from lending them the same hopes everywhere. For this region is not a single bloc. From one country to another, history and societies differ, modernity has made unequal progress and the fear of seeing women become equal to men still widely predominates in certain countries. Thus, once again, in March 2011, Saudi Arabia refused to grant them the right to vote before 2015… and to allow them to drive. In Libya on 23 October 2011, the day of Gaddafi’s execution and the birth of the new regime, the head of the National Transitional Council made the scrupulous application of Sharia and the full restoration of its rules on polygamy one of the priorities of his action.

Women have participated in all the protest movements that have been gripping the Arab world for more than two years, but not in the same manner. And above all, that the transitions underway are far from lending them the same hopes everywhere

This overview allows us to measure to what point the issue of the condition women is at the heart of political and societal projects being undertaken today in this part of the world. Yet everywhere, women are attempting to take advantage of the changes underway to improve their situation.

Transitions under Islamist Hegemony against Women?

The current stage of political transitions has seen the arrival of movements emerging from political Islam whose programme is the re-Islamisation of law and society under a variety of forms appropriate to each country’s specificities. In Tunisia the Ennahda (Renaissance) party won the elections in October 2011; in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists together took nearly 3/4 of the parliamentary seats in June 2012; in Morocco the Justice and Development Party won the November 2011 elections. In Libya, explicitly Islamist parties did not take the day in elections, but all political parties proclaim their commitment to Sharia.

And here is the first hitch: the reference to religious law is in contradiction with the demand for equality, insofar as it prevents full legal equality between genders. The victory of political Islam and the re-Islamisation of the societal sphere that it seeks and announces comes down everywhere to the strengthening of patriarchal control over the condition of women, the main tool being the religious reference.

The socio-political conditions under which transitions are taking place mean that democratisation, the will to restore Sharia where it had been weakened by processes of secularisation and the female condition are more than ever linked. The destiny of the societies in the region will be a function of the articulation that the political and social actors establish between these three factors. Hence women’s rights and the future of the democratisation process are one and the same subject today on the South shore of the Mediterranean. The choice by governments and elected politicians of a specific hierarchy of norms will determine the nature of developments. We are finally beginning to understand, in this new configuration, that the women issue is a focal point in this stage of history. Are women indeed threatened by the Islamist course taken by the transition processes? Do they risk losing their acquis where the latter are significant, as in Tunisia?

In this country, the Ennahda party, during its political campaign, committed not to revoke Tunisian women’s rights, but since its victory in October 2011, the main leaders have multiplied their alarming declarations. Some publicly state they are in favour of polygamy, forbidden since 1956. All of them preach a return to a moral order respectful of “Islamic values” in their most conservative reading. Customary marriage has been restored to honour although it is prohibited by law. Since then, it has been practiced in Salafist milieus and has engendered quite a number of social dramas.

More seriously, the authorities have not reacted to the violence perpetrated by Salafist groups against women, to aggressions in teaching establishments where some have attempted to impose the wearing of the veil on non-veiled students and teachers, or impose the veiling of little girls as of the age of three at kindergartens. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), the oldest feminist association in the country, has warned against these attempts at intimidation.

Today, writing the Constitution is the main issue in the battle. Women’s rights organisations want it to make the principle of equality “fully real,” explicitly prohibiting all forms of discrimination based on gender by establishing the primacy of international treaties over national laws.[1] However, the project advocated by the Islamist majority makes no reference to the universality of human rights. Its Article 15 mentions that “Respecting international treaties is an obligation, insofar as they are not contrary to the stipulations in the present Constitution,” which goes against the principle of the primacy of international conventions over local law. And finally, references to the Muslim nature of the State are much clearer than in the preceding Constitution. The majority party has, moreover, stated its intention of not lifting Tunisian reservations to CEDAW, certain articles of which they consider would contravene “Islamic values.”

If debates are more heated in Tunisia than elsewhere, it is because women there truly have something to lose, which is not the case in the majority of neighbouring countries. Hence, in Egypt, the new Constitution adopted by referendum on 15 December 2012 eliminates all reference to “male-female equality – contrary to Sharia law as it is currently interpreted – and replaces it with the vaguer notion of “equality among all Egyptians.” It also stipulates that women should seek a “balance between their family and professional duties.” The State allegedly protects the “true nature of the Egyptian family” and “fosters its morals and values.”

Civil Society Organisations and the Mobilisation of Women

Everywhere, however, including in the highly conservative Gulf States, women are fighting. In 2006, the Equality without Reservation coalition was created in Rabat, grouping together women’s associations from the ensemble of the Arab world, and has made women’s demands heard in the uprisings underway.

The struggle for their rights is a vast programme that generates a great deal of resistance, even among the women “revolutionaries” of Benghazi or Sanaa. But there is no democracy without equality. And equality cannot be divided. The Arab world is changing. Some would like this change to take place without women, and sometimes even against them. This is no longer possible, despite the threats of regression, which should be taken seriously.