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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Women and the Arab Spring

Office of Global Women's Issues
Foreign Service Journal: May 2012, Volume 89, No. 5
Washington, DC
May 3, 2012


Few people will soon forget the images of people taking to the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and now Syria, to overthrow autocratic regimes. These images belie long-held notions of the lack of popular democratic aspirations in the Arab world. So, too, did images of women, standing alongside men, undercut stereotypes of voiceless, invisible Arab women.

In Tahrir Square and Change Square, and on the streets of Tunisia and Libya, women and men marched together to demand change and a new order. These were the actions of people seeking a new political future. Life under these repressive regimes had become so difficult that many believed only revolutionary change could remedy the situation. And for women, things were particularly difficult.

The Gender Gap
The World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Reports show that the quality of economic and political participation for Arab women declined in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. No Arab country ranked above the bottom seventh in either the 2010 or 2011 report. The United Nations Development Programme’s own Arab Human Development Reports confirm that the exclusion of women from public life has been a prime factor undermining overall economic progress across the region.

According to the WEF, while some Arab countries have closed the educational attainment gap between men and women, the economic opportunity or participation and the political empowerment gaps grew steadily between 2006 and 2010. Even Tunisia, where women secured legal equality and the education gap has been closed for decades, ranked only 107 out of 134 countries in 2010. In the five years before the 2011 revolution, it had slipped 17 spots in the rankings.

Objective evidence shows these countries are still lagging behind global trends that increasingly recognize the value of empowering women. Although Tunisian women comprised the majority of college graduates under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, they have faced significant barriers in attaining key decisionmaking positions in politics, the civil service and business. Only one woman was formally employed for every 2.6 men, and their average earnings were less than a third of what their male counterparts made.

The situation was worse in Egypt and Syria, where the economic position of women slipped every year from 2006 to 2010. And ever since the inception of the WEF Gender Gap Report, Yemen has consistently ranked at the bottom. Most Yemeni women remain illiterate and have very limited opportunities, with many living in confined conditions.

Cautious Optimism
A year after the Arab Spring began, the picture for women is mixed. In Tunisia, the birthplace of the movement, all major political parties in the newly elected Constituent Assembly have pledged to uphold women’s rights, including the Islam-based Ennahda. With an electoral system that requires parties to alternate between male and female candidates, 30 percent of assembly members are women. Four of the six committees drafting the new constitution are headed by women.

Yet even in this atmosphere of cautious optimism, the women of Tunisia have told us that the world must remain vigilant. Only three out of 41 transitional cabinet posts went to women, and none were in key departments. There have been several worrying instances of unofficial segregation by sex in universities, movie theatres and even polling places.

As Tunisians work to balance their secular government traditions with the democratic wishes of a conservative society, women elsewhere in the region are battling for core civil rights. In other countries in the region, many of the best-organized political forces are apathetic or even openly hostile to women’s rights and participation.

No one knows whether conservative forces, especially in Egypt, will begin using their new powers to restrict women’s participation across society. For example, after the protests ended, Egypt’s transitional military council simply excluded women from the decision-making process. Egyptian women witnessed the power of collective action in Tahrir Square, and so last year thousands of activists — from across the political, ideological and religious spectra — gathered to write the charter that distilled the core demands of Egyptian women: equal political, economic and legal citizenship. They hope this powerful document will rally others as they lobby to enshrine equal citizenship into Egypt’s new constitution.

In Yemen, the exit of President Ali Abdullah Saleh was negotiated among men representing the political opposition and the country’s Arab neighbors. Women and youth, who had been so essential to the popular movement, were excluded. With the election of the new president, the situation remains delicate; a security crisis could instigate further political, economic and social marginalization of women and youth.

Hopes for Libya’s future are high, but the challenges are great; Moammar Qadhafi spent decades systematically destroying his country’s core institutions. The rebellion was led by volunteers, who are working to rebuild the basic institutions of the state. So far, the Transitional National Council has given women only a very small role in the formal transition process.

Even so, women have seized their new freedoms to organize outside of government. They are effective civil society leaders, working with local councils and the national government, addressing the crucially important needs of a post-conflict society, including providing basic civics education to fellow citizens, and developing and lobbying for real solutions to the disarming, demobilization and reintegration of former rebels. In Syria, women are playing important rolesin keeping the protest movement alive to counter the regime’s wanton violence.

Women who long for progress in each of these countries are realistic about the challenges they confront. They understand that changing deeply held cultural and religious norms will take a generation, but this is an undertaking that they willingly accept. They seek our consistent, strong support of efforts to retain and expand their rights and participation. Although women’s empowerment is often viewed as a secondary priority in times of transition, it is precisely at these times that women can play a crucial role. Their involvement can ensure an enduring peace and a constitution that protects the rights of all citizens equally, as well as creating the economic and social structures that underpin a future offering security and prosperity.

How Can the U.S. Help?
Real and lasting change will take time, so we must take advantage of every opportunity to help our allies stay on the path to democracy and inclusiveness. In particular, we must support national voices calling for women’s inclusion and empowerment. Such assistance need not be solely direct or financial; moral support in our public and private messaging is key. In addition, helping women build organizational capacity and greater connections to civil society, regionally and internationally, will be vital.

One of the chief lessons of the Arab Spring is that democracy is everyone’s business — women and men, Muslim and Christian, young and old. Success comes when everyone participates. The revolutions were not about pitting one group against another, but people coming together to bring about sustainable societal change for a better life. This point was driven home recently when I met with Yemeni Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman. She described the struggle as directed not only against the Saleh regime but also against strong cultural and religious traditions used by some in the Arab world to keep women out of power. After declaring that “the women of the Arab Spring have come alive, and they will not go back to
sleep,” she added: “It is in the interests of dictators to keep women out of politics.”

This is a critical juncture for American engagement and diplomacy. Emerging leaders, often for the first time in decades, are open to new ideas on political reform. It is an historic opportunity for us to advocate equal citizenship and opportunity for all.

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