Arab Women Empowerment: What's Next?

June, 2011
By Sanaa Arora

Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have put a spotlight on the role and status of Arab women, who stand to either lose or gain from the winds of change sweeping the region. 

When the January 25 revolution first broke out in Egypt this year against the erstwhile authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, the world witnessed heartening images of women protesters taking on an active role in Tahrir square. However the initial glee quickly dispelled when a newly formed committee to overlook democratic transition in Egypt did not include a single woman. In the same month, the ��Million Women March�� on International Women��s Day failed miserably and the few hundred protestors were met with jibes and ridicule and asked to go back home. The month of May brought the much more disturbing news that in subsequent protests in Egypt, some of the women protestors had to undergo virginity checks. 

In Saudi Arabia, Manal Al Sharif made headlines for driving around in Riyadh, in defiance against the ban on women motorists. In a country that was largely unaffected by domestic disturbances in the Arab Spring, can women organize a successful protest that disgruntled minorities or unemployed youth in the country weren��t able to?  Women have planned an upcoming protest against the current restriction on women driving on June 17. It remains to be seen whether June 17 will see a successful turnout which could potentially prolong the debate over women��s rights in Saudi Arabia or turn out to be a damp squib. 

It is important to note here that although women continue to face political and social challenges, progress has been made in the fields of education and economic participation in the last two decades. Although the Arab Human Development Report on women in 2005 was bleak, indicating that Arab women's political and economic participation was the lowest in the world; it also served as a voice for change. The report called women's empowerment, "a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance, inseparably and causally linked to the fate of the Arab world."

Some of the positive takeaways from the last couple of decades have been an increase in the level of education, women entrepreneurship and female labor force participation in the Middle East. This can be attributed to an increase in women��s enrollment in higher education, easier access to finance particularly microfinance, training and capacity building programmes targeted at women and civil society initiatives. Jordan, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Oman are some of the countries which have shown a steady rise in women��s employment, in the last two decades. Over the past few years, the increase has been even higher, with women entering sectors that were previously male dominated. 

The question therefore arises whether this increase in education and economic inclusion will translate into greater benefits in the political and social arena for women. 

At this moment in time, when the Arab World is at a turning point in history, the following factors will have implications for the role of women in any future society:

  • Nature of post-revolution governments: There have been apprehensions that the call for democratic transition in many Arab countries could be hijacked by radical Islamist movements. There is uncertainty about the political future of countries such as Egypt and Syria and even relatively ��liberal�� countries like Lebanon are facing greater political participation by conservative Islamist groups. The secular versus religious composition of new governments will play an important part in shaping the future political and social empowerment of Arab Women. It is important to note here that women are not the only ones who were left out of the political space in many Arab countries until recently. Under the authoritarian regimes of many countries, men too had their political and civil rights restricted. Hence it is likely that a change in political systems will be gradual where men are likely to enjoy greater political liberty and power first, which may then be extended to women over a couple of decades. Hence if democracy actually takes shape in the transitory countries today, it is unlikely that we will see women holding key cabinet portfolios until at least a couple of decades.  
  • Degree of local support: It is vital that reforms pertaining to political and socio-economic empowerment for women are cultivated at the grassroots level and have strong local support in order to be sustainable and effective. There is a tendency to link pro-women reforms with ��westernization�� of Arab societies; hence there is a resistance to such reforms within society, not only among men but also oddly among women. Gulf Arab states such as Bahrain and Kuwait faced tough opposition before women obtained the right to vote or join parliament in 2002 and 2005 respectively. Civil society and media can play a key role here in reshaping people��s attitude towards ��pro-women�� reforms.
  • Debate over the role of a women��s quota: A debate is raging on in Arab countries such as Egypt over the necessity of a special representative quota for women in politics. In 2010, Egypt passed a law providing for the creation of 64 reserved seats for women in parliament. This has received mixed reviews by many regional experts, including women. Many women feel that instead of a quota, a meritorious equal playing field in elections is more desirable. This section of women feels that a quota is a form of discrimination and encourages certain ��appropriate�� ministries to be reserved for women.  On the other hand, many local women have a different perspective and believe that a quota is necessary in the current reality. In a society, where a majority of the population may not feel comfortable voting for women in senior positions, a quota based system in parliament and ministries has the potential to facilitate greater political inclusion of women and can be utilized as a tool for gradual empowerment of women in society.

Therefore in conclusion, the future trajectory of political and social empowerment of women in Arab countries will be closely inter-linked with the nature of ��post revolution�� governments, degree of local support which will be contingent on media and civil society initiatives and the debate over quotas for women in politics. A continued increase in education and economic participation will serve as contributing factors.

Will the Arab world see a woman President or Foreign Minister in the next couple of decades? Many women around the world await with bated breath. 

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