Freedoms at Risk Arab Women Fight to Defend their Rights

The Arab Spring seemed to herald a new era of emancipation for women in the Arab world. But Islamists are on the rise in Tunisia and Egypt, and there are worrying reports of sexual assaults on demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Many women in the region fear a rollback of what rights they had under the dictators.


She looks serious in the picture she has posted on the Internet. She is also naked, a young Egyptian woman showing her body to her country. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, a 20-year-old art student at the American University in Cairo, wanted to protest against the oppression of women and conservatism in her country. To achieve that, she did something that is almost unheard of.

"Undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups," she wrote in her blog. In a country where couples cannot kiss in public, her act came as a shock.

Since triggering a scandal two weeks ago, the Egyptian woman has had to hide from the hatred of religious conservatives, and even secular Egyptians have distanced themselves from her. They don't want to be associated with her act, and they are afraid of being characterized as worldly, licentious and immoral.

There is much at stake at the moment for Egypt's young people, who are protesting once again on Tahrir Square, this time against military control of the country, as if the revolution of January and February had never happened. It is no longer merely a question of whether the country will achieve the transition to democracy, but also of what kind of society Egypt wants and what the status of women will be in that society.

There have been numerous reports within the last week of sexual assaults on women at Tahrir Square, assaults involving both security forces and protesters. The Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, who had taken part in the protests on the square, was held for hours while blindfolded. Policemen groped her and broke one of her arms and a hand. "(They) groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers," she wrote on Twitter. "They are dogs and their bosses are dogs."

Confusion about Female Roles

The West is confused. In January and February, many were enthusiastic about the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, particularly when it came to the role women played. Women protested alongside men on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis and on Tahrir Square in Cairo. Their involvement conveyed a new image of Arab youth and Arab women. The many photographers in Cairo and Tunis sent their editorial offices images of attractive women taking part in the revolution.

People in the West recognized themselves in the faces of the young female protesters, and they were pleased that people in these countries were not as different as many had previously believed. The certainty that Arabs were incompatible with democracy was destroyed, as well as the cliché of the Arab woman as a passive, oppressed being.

None of the uprisings in the Arab countries would have been possible without the participation of women. They were among the first to protest at the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, they organized women's protests in Syria, they were part of the Libyan uprising from the start, and a Yemeni activist was one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

Fears of Losing Rights

All of this explains why so many people have been disappointed by news reports in recent weeks. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began and where women enjoy more freedom than anywhere else in the Arab world, the Islamists emerged from the recent election as the strongest party. The same thing is likely to happen in Egypt, which is currently holding elections. And not a single woman was appointed to the council that has been charged with drafting a constitution.

In Egypt, it isn't just the Islamists who have been responsible for serious assaults on women since then. It's also members of the old and new regime. In March, there were reports that the army was performing "virginity tests" on female protesters, a procedure that many of the women perceived as rape.

They were undressed by jeering soldiers, who used their mobile phones to film examinations of the women's genitalia. A general subsequently announced that the women "were not like your daughter or mine." More recently, acts of sexual violence are being perpetrated against women on the square once again.

Did Arab women fight for their freedom, only to then lose even the rights they had previously enjoyed under the dictators?

An Elite Project

There has long been an urban class of well-educated, professional women in Tunisia and Egypt. But achieving women's rights was a project of the elite. For despots like former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it was also a means to an end. They used their support for women's rights to lead the West to believe that their regimes stood for progress.

But the reality left much to be desired. Indeed, the famous United Nations' Arab Human Development Report of 2002 cited the poor state of women's rights in the Arab world as one of three reasons why this part of the world had remained so underdeveloped.

Ironically, in Egypt it was Suzanne Mubarak, the now-hated wife of the former president, who championed women's rights and fought the horrific practice of female genital mutilation. Although she made some progress, many of her achievements on behalf of women are now associated with her name.

It is not surprising that an Islamic counter-model is now gaining traction in the wake of the overthrow of regimes that masqueraded as Western and secular. Particularly in Tunisia, the secular elite always behaved as if it were more European than Arab, emulating the lifestyle of the former colonial power, France. In the upscale suburbs of Tunis, it was not unusual to see women wearing short skirts, and feminists were proud of it.

Mostly Equal

In Tunisia, women are on equal terms with men in almost all areas. They can divorce their husbands, polygamy is banned and abortion is legal. The effects of this policy are reflected in two numbers. Whereas half of all women were already married at the age of 20 in 1960, by 2004 only 3 percent of women aged 15 to 19 were married. This status of women can be attributed to Habib Bourguiba, the secular founder of the Tunisian Republic, who is often regarded as a Tunisian counterpart to Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And yet it remains primarily an urban phenomenon. Like Turkey, Tunisia was largely secular because it was what the elites wanted. In the country's interior, people are conservative.

It was a mistake to believe that the Arab world would become more Westernized after the revolutions. On the contrary, in many places residents are returning to their own values.

In the streets of Tunis, women wearing headscarves were still the exception in January, but by June it seemed that about half of women were wearing the garment. Some were doing so simply for religious reasons, but for many the hijab is an expression of a newly discovered identity. Before the revolutions, it was almost seen as a stigma to be an Arab. But since the successful ouster of Ben Ali, a new sense of national pride and Arab identity has become evident in Tunisia.

Sana Ben Achour, Tunisia's leading feminist, doesn't try to hide her regret over the changes. She doesn't like it when the impression is created that a woman's body is something that has to be covered up. She points out, however, that when one looks at young women wearing tight jeans with the veil, it is clear that nothing is actually being covered up. Achour describes it as a fashion, and yet she is not pleased about it.

Conservative Resurgence

In Egypt, on the other hand, for years few women have ventured into the streets without a veil. It is a sign of a conservative society that seems far more removed from Europe than Tunisia.

But veiled women already took to the streets to protest against the British as long ago as 1919. After Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1954, the country experienced a social awakening, and women were encouraged to take part in professional life. Nevertheless, there has been a strong resurgence in conservatism since the 1980s, with women being pushed back into traditional roles.

Many Arab feminists look with concern to Iraq, where the overthrow of a secular tyrant did not help women, and where four-fifths of all female pupils and students have discontinued their education since then.


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