In the "Arab Spring" countries in transition, women are now marginalized or excluded entirely from political bodies. Denial of one's fundamental right to participate in the democratic process in one's own country is one form of violence. Yet it is not, unfortunately, alone in the pattern of violence involving restrictions on women.
In much of the Muslim world today, when a Muslim woman speaks out or is qualified to take a leadership role, she is called "militant." In a propaganda trap doubtlessly intended to cripple one politically – like so many others of its kind, such as "racist" – if a woman speaks in ways expected of a woman, she is seen as an inadequate leader; if she speaks in ways expected of a leader, she is seen as an inadequate woman. If you can dismiss the person, you can dismiss the issue.
During the revolutions and uprisings across the Arab world, violence targeting women has been reported frequently as committed by police, soldiers, and militia. There have even been accounts of violence against women by demonstrators.
The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in psychological harm or suffering to women." Prohibitions on participation in the political, economic, and social decisions which will affect oneself and one's family are a form of violence. Decisions about women made without consultation with women create psychological harm and suffering. Refusing women the right to support or oppose laws concerning them is a violent act against them.
I attended a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March and heard testimony about women's rights being violated across the Middle East. That women's rights continue to be usurped and that women continue to be dehumanized by Islamists is a reality and a horror.
Another international organization, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, has identified anti-women policies as a danger sign of spreading fundamentalism. These practices, whether they involve limitations on freedom of movement, on the right to education and employment, or imposition of discriminatory laws, under authoritarian and theocratic rule, represent a challenge for women to organize and act together. As Islamic fundamentalism is misogynistic, feminist input in debates about the future of Islam and Muslims is considered "provocative." But Muslim women's ever-greater political leadership in attaining freedom and gender equality is indispensable to defeating fundamentalism.
The first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist, recently said "My dear women: You have revolted from all over the country of Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria in order to construct a dignified life and a better future. Therefore, there is no way that we should bend down or go back."
Many women hoped the so-called "Arab Spring" would bring changes to the Middle East to help them realize their dreams and secure a better life for the next generation of women through peaceful transitions away from dictatorship, and collaboration between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, government and civilians. But, as Tawakkol Karman also pointed out, "One of the necessities of partnership is for women to obtain their full rights. No dignity and no liberty for a nation which oppresses women and takes away their rights."
Tawakkol Karman, is a member of Al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has benefited most from the electoral aftermath of the "Arab Spring" in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. Her position may therefore be considered ambivalent: she is a female rebel within a revolutionary movement that historically has emphasized the subordination of women according to alleged "Islamic" concepts. The "new" MB has followed the model of its current Turkish patron, the neo-fundamentalist Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), in emphasizing an ostensible commitment to modern principles of equality and citizenship. But in practice, AKP has left its "moderate" promises behind as, recently, it proposed an educational reform that Turkish parents fear would encourage girls, in particular, to quit school after only four years.
For decades, Egyptian Muslim women suffered because divorce was not easy for them to obtain. But the right of women to initiate divorces in court actions ("khul") was established under ex-president Mubarak. Recently, however, an independent member of the Egyptian parliament suggested limiting women's right to initiate divorces. Mohamed al-Omda, deputy head of the People's Assembly Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee has submitted a draft law that would abolish the prerogative of "khul."
In Syria, women have been abducted by pro-regime forces, to spread fear in the population, and there is a mass of evidence involving rape, arbitrary detention, torture, "disappearances" and summary executions. In Libya, rape has been employed as a weapon of war, and the victims are stigmatized into silence. In Egypt, women demonstrators have been sexually assaulted by male protesters, and several women dissidents were detained by the army, and forced to undergo "virginity tests".
Hanaa Edwar, head of the charity Al-Amal ("Hope" in Arabic) has said, "Iraqi women suffer marginalization and all kinds of violence, including forced marriages, divorces and harassment, as well as restrictions on their liberty, their education, their choice of clothing, and their social life."
No commentary on human rights in the Arab world would be complete without mention of the outstanding example of denial of women's rights: Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is so flagrant in its violations of women's rights that one article cannot encompass all of them. A Saudi journalist, Dr. Khalid Al-Nowaiser, wrote on March 21, 2012, in Arab News, "Saudi women urgently need equal rights." He added, "There are always men who want to control women's rights in the name of religion or otherwise."
Many Arab women want emotional and intellectual liberation, including free participation in public life. These are not new demands. The United Nations Development Programme's 2007-08 survey of Middle Eastern women's status revealed that the rate of education among Arab women is the lowest in the Muslim world – in societies where we believe that educating one woman is like educating the entire nation.
Resistance to the establishment of women's rights may be blamed on self-appointed male caretakers of Muslim tradition, who feel threatened by the appearance of a significant number of women in a public space, considered reserved for men only, and who say they see emancipated Muslim women as negative exemplars of Westernization.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has attacked other laws regulating personal status in Egypt. They accuse the National Commission for Women, established in 2000 and chaired by Mubarak's wife, Suzanne Mubarak, of implementing Western strategies to undermine the family and social life in Egypt.
Women can bring about change – call it "The Silent Revolution." Women in Morocco already helped bring about significant improvements in marriage, divorce, and other family law, and polygamy has nearly disappeared there. Many relevant voices have been heard in the past year. Speaking in Rabat, Morocco, in March 2012, Michele Bachelet, a former president of Chile and executive director of the new organization, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, called for greater equality, especially in rural areas, where inequality between men and women is "most marked." At the same time, in Tunis, several thousand women demonstrated outside parliament against any attempt by the new Islamist-dominated government to cut back their recognized rights.
In March 2012, in Saudi Arabia itself, female students at a branch of King Khalid University in Abha, in the country's southwestern Asir region, joined in a major protest against trash piled up on the campus, abuses by administrators, and the corruption alleged against the university president, Abdullah Al-Rashid. The students were attacked by female security guards. When the demonstrations continued for a second day, state security agencies, including the so-called "morals patrols" or mutawiyin, often referred to as a "religious police," gathered at the university in an attempt to suppress the demonstration. Saudi sources reported 53 students injured and hospitalized, and one dead of an epileptic seizure.
Even in the Saudi kingdom, protest and change initiated by women are inevitable. We need only the courage to recognize and support them.