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Threats to women’s rights from post Arab Spring constitutions


Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

New constitutions drawn up in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring could lock in discrimination against women, despite the prominent role they played in the uprisings.

Women from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria, Libya and Bahrain stood shoulder to shoulder with men in the street protest movements in their countries and were key organisers and leaders in social networking or providing logistical support.

But they are are now facing exclusion from the political processes under way, according to a briefing by the the International Civil Society Action Network in a recent report What Women Say: The Arab Spring and Implications for Women.

“By omission or commission, the emerging male-dominated leaderships seem to forget that democracy without equality in all aspects of the law and full participation of 50 per cent of the population is another form of authoritarianism,” says the report.

It aims to highlight common regional trends that threaten democracy, equality and women’s ability to participate in decision-making.

There have, for example, been calls in Egypt for the – minimal – legal gains made by women in child custody and divorce rights to be reversed, and in Tunisia women are coming under new pressure to withdraw from public life and to wear the veil.

Such threats to women’s hard-won legal and social gains are arising because women’s rights are being associated not only with the oppressive regimes of the past but with the West, the report warns.

This ignores the fact that the Arab Spring was a ‘ground upwards’ movement, often led by women from across the social spectrum in pursuit of equality, dignity and democracy that was neither elitist nor western.

“What’s missing from the discourse is acknowledgment that when it comes to women’s rights, the challenge is not necessarily Islam but entrenched patriarchy and chauvinism.

“Those opposed to women’s equal rights cloak their concerns in the mantle of colonialism and westernised threats to local culture, and have been effective in pushing back against advocates of equal rights.”

Women’s rights are threatened not only by the rise of conservative interpretations of Islam and local customs, but by the false assumption that human rights do not adhere to Islamic values.

“If these interpretations persist and are favoured over universal human rights standards, there is a real risk and likelihood of serious legal and institutionalised discrimination against women [being] invoked through constitutions and laws.

“The impact will be felt by generations of women and girls, as well as men and boys,” the report continues.

Sussan Tahmasebi, one of the report’s authors and a women’s rights activist who worked in her native Iran for close to ten years from 1999, says it is critical that women protect the gains they have made.

“A lot of independent activists spent a lot of time and energy advocating for these rights under very difficult circumstances and they should be seen as the gains of the women’s rights community, as opposed to a showcase of the dictatorship,” says Tahmasebi.

And she believes it is vital that women focus on women’s issues, women’s identity and women’s position in society.

“These [three issues] are at the centre of much of the discourse in the region as it makes the transition from tradition to modernity, from dictatorship to democracy,” she explains.

“Women’s issues are not only part and parcel of what defines the collective identity, so some of this battle is really fought on women’s bodies and about women’s rights and unless women realise that, they are going to lose a lot.”

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