Women's rights under growing pressure in Arab world

by Lisa Anderson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 7 March 2013 12:03 GMT

By Lisa Anderson

NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - The Arab Spring revolutions have left women’s rights in a regressive situation that threatens to worsen, according to a sober and sometimes tearful panel of experts and representatives from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

“What’s happening is that women’s rights and women’s presence in the public sphere are directly under attack,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and director of its MENA programme on women’s rights, peace and security.

Tahmasebi spoke recently on a panel called “Women under Siege: New and Emerging forms of Violence Against Women in the MENA Region,” as part of the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which is meeting here until March 15.

Tahmasebi, who spent years working with women’s rights groups in Iran, listed a number of troubling trends in the region.

Among them is the targeting of prominent women activists through political rhetoric and through violence. She asserted that activists in Tunisia have uncovered an assassination list of 200 liberal people, including women, targeted by conservatives.

In Tunisia, there also is growing pressure for women to be veiled, Tahmasebi said, while Iranian women run an increasing risk of arrest for wearing “improper” attire.


In the region, overall, she said, women’s legal rights are being challenged or eroded. In Egypt, for example, some previous gains by women are being derided as “laws of Suzanne Mubarak,” Tahmasebi noted, referring to the wife of the former Egyptian president.

The situation for women in Egypt is dire, said Dalia Abdel Hameed from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who spoke about the sexual violence women experienced in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“The revolution in Egypt might be a collective experience, but at the same time, it’s a very personal, physical experience. We’ve put our bodies in the path of bullets, birdshot and sexual violence,” she said, describing her and other women’s experiences during the protests in Tahrir Square.

Recalling the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2013, she said, “It was one of the worst days of many peoples’ lives. We had so many reports of mob sexual harassment and mob sexual assaults.”

Dissolving into tears, Abdel Hameed recalled that “one woman had her vagina ripped from her vagina to the anus.  I am sorry to say this.”

She added, “On that day, we didn’t do much but wipe the blood from women’s bodies and escort women to the hospital.”


The situation in Libya isn’t much better, said Libyan novelist and journalist Razan Naeim Al-Moghrabi.

After an initial flush of freedom, which saw women running for public office, the conservatives gained power, she said.

Before the revolution, women had rights regarding divorce, child custody and property but they are now being eroded and women are being encouraged to veil, she said. One of the first actions of the Libyan high court was to affirm men’s right to marry multiple wives, she noted.

Beyond that, Al-Moghrabi said, women advocating human rights are being targeted with threats and she herself has received death threats for supporting women’s rights.

More worrying, she said, was that when a female activist recently said on television that the Koran does not require women to wear the veil, she was attacked by other women. “Women against women. That is a dangerous trend,” said Al-Moghrabi.


All over the world people are using religion to foment violence, particularly violence against women, according to Shareen Gokal, manager of the Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalism initiative at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).

“This is not about religion. It’s about money, and it’s about power,” said Gokal, adding that civil activists must work “to remove the cloak of the divine from these actors.”

Much of this conservative trend in the MENA region is attributed to a strict interpretation of Islam that is new to many countries of the Arab Spring, said Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, co-founder and executive director of ICAN and a senior fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies.

This version of Islam, most consonant with the ultra-conservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, is extremely limiting for women's rights, Anderlini said.

“Once you have divine law determining your status, how can you challenge divine law? How can you challenge God,” she said.

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