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Ida Lichter, M.D.

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Muslim Women's Self-reliance and Clinton's Guidance Could Ensure Reforms

Posted: 03/15/11 01:22 PM ET

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has correctly warned that women's rights in Tunisia and Egypt risk being undermined, endangering reforms to gender discriminatory laws and jeopardizing the vital social, economic and political contribution of half the population.

In this crucial post-coup stage, women who fought for change should heed the betrayals of gender rights in Algeria and Iran during periods of crisis.

During Algeria's war of independence from the French, (1954-62), women fought side by side with men in the expectation of full emancipation. Men often betrayed compatriot wives by divorcing them soon after independence, and although the post revolution constitution conferred equal gender rights, an Islamist president put forward in 1978 by a minority group in the ruling National Liberation Front Party (FLN), suspended the constitution and made Islam the state religion. Women were placed under the control of husbands or male relatives and forbidden to travel without a chaperone. Husbands could vote in place of their wives, and divorce and inheritance laws were rewritten in favor of men.

The Family Code incorporated discriminatory elements of sharia law and legitimized state-sanctioned violence against women who defied Islamist rules. After the first draft was released in 1979, two hundred university women demanded changes with the slogan, "No to the betrayal of the ideals of November 1, 1954!" but the Family Code became law in 1984.

Four years later, hundreds of young people were killed during protests against corruption, lack of freedom and economic insecurity, prompting a constitutional amendment to allow a multiparty parliamentary system. Following the 1991 election, in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) received 41 percent of the votes in the first round, the army cancelled the second round, fearing an Iranian style Islamist theocracy. In the ensuing violence between the FIS and the army, radical Islam and terrorism grew and over 100,000 people were killed, the vast majority women and children. Unveiled women were gunned down and gang rape of women following kidnapping was common practice. The majority of Algerian men were generally silent, as if paralyzed by fear.

Before and during the Iranian revolution, women across the political spectrum joined with men to oust the Shah, in the expectation of increased personal liberties but the outcome was far worse than any women had imagined. Khomeini reneged on his promises to draft a constitution and convene a legislative assembly. Instead, he imposed clerical rule (velayat-e faqih) and gender discriminatory laws including sharia family law, mandatory hijab and removal of female judges.

Iranian women were betrayed again in 1997, when they helped to bring fifth president Mohammad Khatami to power in the hope that he would institute reforms. However, during his eight-year term of office, Khatami did not introduce any significant anti-discriminatory bills or democratization. Under current President Ahmadinejad, women's rights have regressed further.

The uprisings in the Middle East offer a window of opportunity for women but retention of the rights already achieved in Tunisia and Egypt, and inclusion of women's rights in new constitutions, will require determination, tenacity and understanding of the political process. So far, men have been excluding women. In Tunisia, only two of the 23 ministers are women and none of the 24 new governors is a woman. In Egypt, women were not invited to join a committee formed to prepare amendments to the constitution.

Iranian women reformers have learned from history and challenged those men who believe the struggle for democracy should have priority over women's rights. These feminists declared that "Democracy cannot be achieved without freedom and equal rights."

Women have also learned that legislating significant rights laws doesn't guarantee their enforcement. The Afghan government enacted the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women in 2009 but criminalization of domestic violence was not fully implemented. Furthermore, in some Muslim societies, women's rights have been ceded to conservative or Islamist elements in negotiations. Such accommodation could be envisaged if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the previously banned extremist Ennahda (Renaissance) party in Tunisia gains influence or power.

Although the head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, has pledged financial aid for their empowerment, Arab women would be unwise to expect assistance from organizations like the UN Commission on the Status of Women that elected Iran to a four-year term. Instead, they must rely on themselves to claim their place on all committees during political transitions and demand that woman's issues are included in all agendas. Clinton's guidance and vigilance during this critical period of political transition could help prevent backsliding on reforms.


 
 
 

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