Outlook unclear for women's rights in post-Arab Spring nations - experts

by Maria Caspani | www.twitter.com/MariaCaspani85 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 9 November 2012 17:15 GMT

Rights activists say it is too early to tell whether women's rights are seriously under threat in post-Arab Spring states Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where parties of many hues are jostling for influence

LONDON (TrustLaw) – Are the rights of women seriously under threat in post-revolution countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? There are grounds for concern, but it is too early to tell, activists and experts say.

 “There is very little that you can say in terms of rollbacks or undermining of women’s rights ... anything specific,” said Liesl Gernholtz, head of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.

Women organised and led some of the demonstrations that toppled decades-old governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen – and helped the rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Many rights activists have expressed concern that, despite women’s major role in the Arab Spring uprisings, they are being kept out of the political discourse and their fundamental rights are threatened as conservative and religious forces, gaining influence after the overthrow of repressive rulers, push for new constitutions to reflect their thinking.

Islamist-led governments are in place in Tunisia and Egypt and their parliaments are struggling to find a balance between secular forces and the rise of conservatism. A transitional government will shortly be sworn in in Libya.

The role of Islamic law, Sharia, is among the most controversial issues in both Tunisia and Egypt, and the weight to be accorded to it in their constitutions is seen as a potential threat not only to the rights of women but also to freedom of expression and religion.

“You had comments from parliamentarians in Egypt …about lowering the age of marriage … about (abolishing) … a law that bans FGM (female genital mutilation),” Gernholtz said. “But in fact this has not happened yet and it is difficult to assess whether it is just rhetoric or whether these are really genuine risks for women’s rights.”

After months of debate which highlights the difficulty in balancing conservative and more liberal forces, Egypt's constituent assembly dropped a controversial article from the draft constitution which declared the state’s commitment to ensuring gender equality “as long as it does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic Sharia”.

The article faced strong opposition from women and human rights groups as they feared a strict interpretation of Sharia law could have led to rollbacks on women's rights. 

Heba Morayef, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch, said it was better to remove the provision than keep it as long as the constitution’s general provision on non-discrimination continued to include the grounds of sex.

“It is too early to make an assessment of where things are heading,” she added.

A similar controversy erupted in Tunisia where thousands of women (and men) took to the streets to protest against the inclusion in the country’s draft constitution – originally due in October, now postponed until next year – of Article 28.

Controversy arose in August around language of the proposed article that many interpreted as defining women's role within the family as 'complementary' to that of men.

A revising committee editing the draft constitution has dropped the complementarity clause but the new wording has not yet been approved by the constituent assembly and is not final.

“I don’t think this article will have any effect on the legislation because it is very vague, it doesn’t have any legal impact,” Amna Guellali, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, told TrustLaw.

“There is also another article in the constitution - Article 22 – which … is a general clause on non discrimination...non discrimination on any grounds.”

Tunisia has long been considered the most progressive country in the region. A 1956 Code of Personal Status established gender equality, banned polygamy and introduced civil divorce and marriage.

In September 2011, Tunisia lifted its key reservations to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but kept one, which allows it to ignore the convention’s requirements when they are in conflict with Chapter 1 of the Tunisian constitution (Islamic law). Egypt and Libya both kept similar reservations.


Another measure that prompted an outcry from rights activists in Egypt was the abolition of a quota for women in parliament, created under former president Hosni Mubarak.

Women gained fewer seats in a now dissolved parliament after the November 2011 elections than they had in the 2010 elections under Mubarak, and only seven women were chosen to take part in the 100-strong constitutional assembly drafting the country’s new constitution.

But this does not necessarily reflect the effectiveness of women’s participation in politics.

“There are always questions about whether simply having a number of women in various structures …actually advances women’s rights,” Gernholtz said.

For example, “the previous quota system in Egypt didn’t really advance women’s participation because it was so clearly linked to the Mubarak regime and it was very much seen as a place to put women who were sympathetic and supportive of the regime,” she added.

The low number of women active in politics is a problem for other countries too, not only for Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. Women only make up around 22 percent of MPs in Italy and Britain less than in Tunisia where women won more than 26 percent of seats in 2011.

All three North African countries have passed electoral laws that ensure women’s political participation – at least on paper. But the new cabinets in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya contained only two women apiece, which may show how reluctant institutions are to challenge cultures that often relegate women to traditional social roles.

“The job of our government (is) to ensure that women are included in prominent positions, not in token places and not in gimmicky places – and also to ensure that women are enabled to work,” Elham Saudi, the director of an organisation working on promoting justice and the rule of law in Libya, told TrustLaw.


Recent episodes of sexual harassment in Tunisia and Egypt – and how the authorities handled them - have raised concern among liberals that society may be taking a conservative turn.

In September, hundreds protested in Tunis when a woman was accused of “indecency” and questioned by a judge after allegedly being raped by police in a car park.

“Regarding the situation on the ground - how (women) are treated ... there are a lot of issues that have arisen lately,” Guellali said.  This is part of a more general trend of threats to human rights, she added.

Such harassment is already endemic in Egyptian society – 83 percent of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment, according to a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center of Women’s Rights – and it appears to be growing even worse in the post-Mubarak era.

In June, a group of women demanding an end to sexual harassment were attacked by a mob in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said last month that his cabinet was working on a law to combat harassment on the streets, according to Ahram Online.

In Libya, discrimination against women “remains in law and practice”, Amnesty International said in an email to TrustLaw.

Finding an acceptable balance between conservative and liberal pressures may prove to be the key to stabilising society and ensuring human rights are protected in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  

“We are in a situation where everything is still possible,” Guellali said. “(Tunisia) can move in the direction of establishing democratic institutions, upholding the full range of human rights… It can also move in another direction, more of  (a) clampdown on rights.”

This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia package on the women of the Arab Spring


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