Women and the Reality of the Arab Spring: Writing New Constitutions, Leaving Out Women's Rights

" ... on December 1, Kim Kardashian paid a visit to the country on Bahraini Women's Day to give an impression that it is 'business as usual', while a laundry list of abuses takes place." -- Dr. Ala'a Shehabi.

" ... in Islamic countries, polygamy -- this is a culture in these societies. The question is, whether the law should be a function or follow these sort of cultures and in the constitution Islamic laws in these countries they say that every man can have four wives, the answer is definitiely, 'No.' The law cannot follow such a culture, however, you imagine that if the laws related to the family which are implemented in Europe today, one week be taken and approved in Saudi Arabia, can they implement such a law ? Even for women in Saudi Arabia... the answer is, 'No,' again. The relation between culture and law, where can we find it?" -- Shirin Ebadi Nobel Peace Prize Laureate at the Trust IHT Women's Conference, London, December 2012.

"Right after the revolution there was strong activism among women, forming new civil-society organizations and campaigning. But they have become discouraged." -- Jamie Dettmer, The Daily Beast.

Reading these quotes, I find this cultural conundrum to be one of the most interesting parts of the Arab Spring in general, and of the issue of women living in these countries. How is it possible that a U.S. reality star, known for her scantily clad lifestyle and the odd sex tape, can be welcomed open-armed in Bahrain yet discussing the rights of women in the new constitutions of several countries which have lived through the Arab Spring is not allowed? How will the new constitutions reflect the everyday lives of the citizens who will be governed by them, especially the female citizens? Are women's rights being eroded, as many of these countries are now lead by Islamic parties which no longer include equality for women as part of the projects for their constitutions?

Firstly, I am not a Muslim woman. I have spent time in North Africa, and have lived in a Muslim country, and have spoken to many Muslim women in the region, as well as with Muslim women from Saudi, Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere, but I cannot personally speak and write about more than what I have witnessed and have been told. Therefore, respecting the skepticism that some Muslim women have for how they are being portrayed in the West, in the media and elsewhere, I recommend reading this article written by Dr. Ala'a Shehabi. She is a Bahraini writer, researcher and pro-democracy activist, and currently a fellow for the Arab Council of Social Sciences. She is one of the founders of Bahrain Watch, an NGO working on transparency and accountability.

The revolutions taking place throughout the world, from Iceland's economic upheaval which put bankers in jail to North Africa's Arab Spring, which ousted abusive regimes have lead to the writing of new constitutions. Many of these are still works in progress. But whereas in Iceland, women have made up a large part of the democratic process, including citizens who reached out via social media to the public to come up with the new constitution, there is a disturbing lack of women invited to participate in the creation of new constitutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Of course there are huge cultural differences between Iceland and North Africa, but women are women. And women's rights must be protected in any constitution, and women should be part of the process of writing any new constitution, even if their idea of democracy differs than that of women in Iceland.

Over the past two years since the events in Tunisia which lead to a growing movement towards what many hoped would be more democratic societies, women who have been at the forefront of these movements are now finding themselves left out of the process of creating new constitutions. We are thus lead to ask ourselves, Muslim and non-Muslim, how can democracy exist if half the population has no voice in making the very documents which describe the new society? The positive information I have had and which was repeated several times at the IHT Trust Women's Conference by Muslim women is that there are many men within their countries supporting women and equal rights.

Women from across the regions of the Arab Spring participated in two panels at the recent first annual Women's Trust Conference hosted by The International Herald Tribune in London earlier this month. Listening to both the women on the panel, as well as the women in the audience who hail from these countries, and others which may soon be facing similar constitutional and legal questions, was fascinating. You can see the video of the panel here.

I first became concerned specifically by the writing of the new constitutions in some of these countries as well as the cultural changes and crossover with the law while in Tunisia this past August. We departed the very day that woman filled the streets in Tunis to demonstrate their outrage at the fact that they were being described as "complements" to men, no longer "equal." Tunisia had been one of the first Muslim countries to put women's rights in the forefront, under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, the first Tunisian president who came to power in 1956. Other countries looked to Tunisia as being an example for the future of women throughout the region.

On my earlier trip to Tunisia in January 2012, I met two women, one an entrepreneur and one a professional who travelled internationally. Both were sitting next to me on the plane from Paris and both said the same thing to me, that they were so happy a woman had sat down next to them and not a Tunisian man. When I questioned them about this, one said she was divorced from a Tunisian man, and dating a German and the other was dating a young open-minded Tunisian man who supported her career and life choices. But both agreed that things had changed and since the revolution, they were concerned about more extremist views affecting women. Both of them impressed me by their energy and entrepreneurial spirit and yet they were deeply concerned about what was taking place in Tunisia since the revolution.

When I returned only six months later, I met another businesswoman, in her forties, in the Northern port town of Tabarka. We began to speak about the evolution of how women were behaving and being treated since the beginning of the Arab Spring. She expressed that she did not recognize her country anymore. She talked about seeing women for the first time in her life, completely covered. I was put in touch by this Tunisian businesswoman, wife and mother via Facebook with a female lawyer who is extremely outspoken on what is going on since the revolution in Tunisia. Her name is Boch Bel Haj Hmida and if you read French or Arabic, she is most definitely worth reading. Both of these women were communicating via Facebook and elsewhere, to bring attention to the lack of women's presence in the projects for the new Constitution in Tunisia.

Just prior to our trip to Tunisia in August, a woman had been attacked near La Marsa neighborhood, and slit open with a machete reportedly because the men felt she was inappropriately dressed. A few days after our return from Tunisia to France, I read the story of a French-Tunisian man, his wife and daughter, who had returned for the summer holidays to the Northern port town of Bizerte,
who was also attacked and forced to tell his wife and child to flee as once again, these women were accused of not being properly covered. Years before, the port of Tabarka, though never developed to the same extent as other parts of the coast, had been a vacation spot, for diving and buying coral. Now the reefs are destroyed and the tourist hotels look like ghost towns with broken windows, light fixtures hanging listlessly. Along the sides of the roads were groups of young men without work, unable to marry and have families. The unemployment which began pre-Arab Spring and helped to create the economic situation behind the Arab Spring was disturbingly ever-present. The once-gorgeous coastline, and many of the beaches, are covered in garbage. In the evening, there was hardly a woman to be seen outside her home. Later back in Tunis, when I asked about this, the man I was speaking to, an educated, wealthy man, he replied that this was because all of the women were at home preparing for the breaking of the feast at the end of the day as it was Ramadan. I have visited North Africa several times during Ramadan in the past decade, but I had never seen such an absence of women.

"Have things changed for the better or worse for women post Arab Spring?" is what I kept asking myself both after speaking with women in Tunisia and during the Trust Women's Conference in London. And how will these women's voices be heard as new constitutions are written which will lay down the realities under which they will have to live, work, study and hopefully thrive? Will they thrive? In Tunisia, the reality has been somewhat extreme in that the women have gone from an almost European kind of freedom and protection under the Constituion to something which could undermine everything they have been able to take for granted for three generations. But other women, from Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, speaking at the Trust Women's Conference, were still quite hopeful, optimistic that their male friends and family supported them. The Bahrainis, I learned, protest so regularly that there is at least one protest per day. But part of the reality is that in the rewriting and propositions for new constitutions in all of these countries, women's rights which were once fully included in some cases, have been reduced, or removed or changed in such a way as to be unrecognizeable. This is not only reason for serious concern, it is reason to believe that the reality which was described to me by women in Tunisia, which was once very open, will continue to worsen. There is no place for fear and lack of equality in human society.

Some additional information regarding the various new constitutions and projects for constituions in some of the Arab Spring countries regarding women's rights follows here:

Tunisia
Here is the project for a new Constitution as it reads in December 2012 (in French).

Egypt
A little known fact, women in Egypt received the right to vote before women in France did. Regarding the vote on this past weekend on the new Constitution, feelings are mixed: "... almost no women were represented in the Constituent Assembly which drafted the new constitution, and that women's perspectives had been "grossly under-represented."

According to ABC News, "A loose umbrella of liberal, secular Muslim, and Christian opposition groups have urged voters to reject the constitution, warning it gives Islamists outsize influence on daily life and allows for crackdowns on freedom of speech and women's rights."

Libya
At the Trust Women's Conference, I heard one of the women on the panel, a young woman from Libya, defending interpretations of Sharia Law so that it would be included as part of the Constitution. Yet, in the "Western" press, the following was published last week.

In article six of the translation there is no reference to "the guarantee of the state upholding women's rights, granting full participation of women in politics" (copied from the article). The Constitutional Declaration says that "Libyans shall be equal before the law," and that "They shall enjoy equal civil and political rights, shall have the same opportunities, and be subject to the same public duties and obligations, without discrimination due to religion, doctrine, language, wealth, race, kinship, political opinions, and social status, tribal or eminent or familial loyalty." While sex/gender equality is implied under the first and (to an extent) second sentences, it is not explicitly put forth as the article implies (it is not listed in article six).

In other words, equality has been removed from the new Constitutional project.

In conclusion, this quote sums up how I and many women feel about women's rights everywhere in the world, not just Muslim countries. This is why constitutions need to reflect and adequately protect women's rights at all times:

"A child cannot be free if his/her mother is not free. A husband cannot be free if his wife is not free. The society is nothing if women are nothing." -- Manal Al Sharif, Saudi Arabian women's rights activist.

Learn about what was discussed at the first annual IHT Trust Women's Conference.