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Women in the Muslim World Need Genuine Reform

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In the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine, Muslim reformer Mona Eltahawy called for a genuine revolution in the Middle East. Unlike the Arab Spring, this one would release women from oppression. "First we stop pretending," she said. "Call out the hate for what it is."

Is misogyny prevalent and gaining traction in the Muslim world and why did most women vote for Islamists in Middle East elections?

Recently, Muhammad Morsi, a leading Egyptian presidential candidate and head of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, called for instituting sharia law and banning women from running for president.

Even women who observe Islamic dress codes are harassed in Cairo, and during last year's demonstrations for freedom in Tahrir Square, women were molested and subjected to virginity tests.

In Tunisia, where women had the most freedom prior to the uprising, female academics and students have been pressured by Islamists to wear the hijab.

Extremist militants harass Yemeni women for not wearing the veil, and underage marriage is justified under cover of religion in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, custodian of the Islamic holy sites, provides a relentless global campaign of extremist Wahhabi teaching. Saudi women are denied equal citizenship and punished for being raped, and although their lot has improved under King Abdullah, the next monarch could set the clock back.

When Kuwaiti women won the vote in 2005 and eventually won four seats in 2009, they were supported by the government, although opposed by Islamists, who accused them of being agents of the West and subverting religious, family and sexual values. In this year's poll, no women were elected and the female members lost their seats.

Courageous "suffragettes" in Iran, who opposed discriminatory laws by taking part in peaceful rallies and the One Million Signatures Campaign, have been arrested and detained.

With the drawdown of foreign troops in Afghanistan and the Taliban pressing for victory, human rights for women will be up for barter again. In 2009, President Hamid Karzai brought in oppressive laws that sacrificed Shia women's rights, presumably for his political advantage.

Under coalition pressure, he ordered a review, but no similar restraints will apply after foreign troops leave.

In Turkey, the Justice Ministry figures showed that premeditated homicide against women had risen from 66 in 2002 to 953 in 2009, associated perhaps, with better reporting, but many local authorities have not implemented government reforms for charging perpetrators.

Women in other Muslim lands suffer increasing discrimination and violence. In northern Mali, there have been reports of rape by armed Islamist Tuareg groups, who are attempting to impose the veil and religious law. The Nigerian Islamist movement, Boko Haram, is engaged in a sustained brutal insurgency, with the aim of implementing a full Islamic state. Religious police in Aceh order women to wear headscarves, and they recently caned a couple for having premarital sex.

Fundamentalist governments have used women against women. In Iran, those demonstrating against unfair laws were beaten by a squad of women-only police, and female patrols have arrested young women for clothing violations.

Azza al-Jarf, a female FJP member of Egypt's parliament, has reportedly called for laws to prevent women from seeking a divorce, and for fathers to ensure their daughters are circumcised.

Well-organised Islamists, who appeared more honest and promised jobs and other social improvements, easily appropriated the Arab Spring uprisings and put up women candidates who reflected their views. Their Islamist ideology that romanticises seventh century and misogynist perspectives would push back women's rights in the region and hasten its export into the wider Muslim world.

Veteran Saudi reformer Wajeha al-Huwaider believes Muslim women were oppressed for centuries and imprisoned "in the dungeons incorrectly referred to as 'their homes.'" It is no easy task for captives to release themselves, and then only to confront a society preoccupied with patriarchal control of dress, choice of spouse, fertility, travel, education and so on. Moreover, in rural areas where religion holds sway, many women are illiterate, isolated from reformers, and unaware of any rights they may have.

Reformers attempt to expose cultural practice that cites tradition and religion to justify abuse of women. They also discredit men's claims to honour and elevate women, pointing out the real agenda is a male-dominated society that fears and infantilises women and accords them second-class status.

Reformers demand change to gender discriminatory laws and they have a window of opportunity in the Arab Spring. However, their task will grow increasingly urgent and difficult if they have to face political Islam, expressed in state legislation, police, prisons and paramilitary militias.

The US administration has not supported women reformers, opting to deal mainly with Islamists, and Western feminists have also disregarded the dissidents. However, in the absence of real freedom for women, there will be no long-term peace, progress or people power in the region.

Considering their predicament, it is understandable that many women have internalised subjugation, accepted the views of their oppressors, and elected Islamists without critical evaluation.

Shirin Ebadi described the 1979 Islamic revolution as "a revolution of men against women ". Hopefully, the same will not apply to the Arab Spring.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.