Women and Democracy Building in the Middle East

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A woman cries as anti-government protesters walk during a candlelight vigil for those killed on February 9, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (John Moore/Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowKarima Bennoune, professor at Rutgers School of Law and a specialist on the democracy movement, women's rights and religious extremism in the Middle East, and Egyptian-born Leila Ahmed (author of the forthcoming book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America), professor at Harvard Divinity School whose work focuses on women and religion in the Middle East, discussed the role of religion and women in reform in the Middle East.

Among the many question marks that have cropped up with revolutions in the Middle East, one that gets less attention is what the future holds for Arab women.

Power vacuums, disorder and confusion could be a recipe for Islamist states, which are traditionally conservative and repressive with respect to women. But a state does not have to be Islamist in order to be discriminatory. The glimmer of hope offered by overthrown dictators and demands for democracy could be eclipsed by new governments that are actually less progressive and inclusive with respect to the female population than their predecessors, whatever the degree of religious influence.

Karima Bennoune said that the recent collision of tradition and change in the Middle East means women's organizations have to walk a fine line, especially as they try to ensure their inclusion in the organizational processes for a new government.

What I've seen from women, for example at the Commission on the Status of Women, from Tunisian Women, what I'm hearing is optimistic vigilance. They take very seriously the possible risks to women's rights...They take the issue seriously, but they don't see it as a justification in any way for failing to respond to the demands of the demonstrators.

That is, if the popular demand is for an Islamist state, these organizations must find ways to make strides without boycotting the majority's choice for governance.

Leila Ahmed said that Egyptian women are confronting this issue head on. They're not waiting to find out what kind of government the country will form, but are making sure they get in on the ground floor.

There were 50-60 women's organizations that signed a protest against the absence of women on the committee charged with shaping the constitution. The fact that there are 60 tells you there is a grassroots, feminist activism and concern for women already in the country, so I hope they will continue to fight.

Along those lines, one measure that has found footing in Middle Eastern nations is a quota system for elected officials. Certain countries, such as Iraq, have required a minimum number of female politicians to serve in local governments. Bennoune said that in Tunisia, where revolution is a little older than in Egypt, there has been serious discussion about adopting such a policy.

They want a quota system in their new electoral processes and they've called for other women's groups who have experience with these sorts of systems to engage with them. They know, and we know this from the Algerian independence movement, the fact that women have been engaged and made sacrifices in the liberation struggle doesn't necessarily guarantee their representation afterward. The quotas are about making sure that that happens.

It's possible that by instituting a quota system at the outset of a new government, one day it won't be necessary. That's far less likely in nations where women either aren't allowed to run for office, or have paltry chances of getting elected. 

Leila Ahmed told Brian Lehrer that the West's traditional laundry list of women's rights—equal pay, reproductive rights, family leave, rape and domestic violence laws—will never take root in Arab nations until women are represented in government. After all, that was the case in the United States.

You need an atmosphere where such demands are possible. Some of these are already definitely possible; I believe Egypt has had equal pay for women since the 1950s. The same demands are already there and will not be hard to negotiate, but here in the United States we have an atmosphere, only after the feminist revolution of the '60s and '70s, in which it's possible to put many of these issues on the table, or at least fight for them.

But the United States' notion of women's liberation may not line up exactly with what Arab women have in mind for themselves. For that reason, foreign nations should be cautious if they feel the need to intervene. While many of the reforms that we've seen in the West would be obviously desirable for women in the Middle East, Bennoune said that we need to remember they've got their own objectives too.

I'd like to focus on what the Algerian women's rights movement is demanding. They're demanding the abrogation of the gender discriminatory family code, often justified on religious grounds by its supporters. They're demanding a new law to protect women from violence, and in fact they know they need democracy to do that work. They are focusing on these issues including the issue of democracy as an enabler for work, and social justice for young people in the country. When we think about what we should push for, we should really take the lead from them.


More in:

Comments [4]

mettehelena from Reno, NV, USA

The brave, young men shouting for Democracy in the Middle East do not know what that is. Only the Arab women know. They know because they inherently run their households with elegant democracy.
Is there a way to inspire and encourage more Arab women to search power positions in The Middle East. Is there a way to make politics independent upon their Muslim faith?
Religion is a personal matter, and should be kept at home and in the church, mosque, temple etc. Politics is for all, no matter what spiritual belief every person hold. I wish for all countries to see how detrimental religion is for the well being of its people!

Mar. 05 2011 10:25 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Muslim women in the MIddle East simply want the same right to strip men of at least half their wealth, and get full custody and domiciling of children in divorce that American women have! That's all.

Actually, most of the struggle in the Middle East isn't about Israel or imperialism or even oil. It's about the refusal of Arab men to give up all power, particularly over their children, as western men already have.

Mar. 02 2011 10:54 AM
bernie from bklyn

it all comes down to institutionalized male insecurity in the arab world. it is 100% oppression and the world needs to stop making excuses for these men and their behavior. i'm sorry, this is not cultural difference, it is oppression, pure and simple.
another man can't see my wife's chin or her forearm etc....because he might just jump on her and start raping her. that's the ridiculous, primitive mindset and it must end now.

Mar. 02 2011 10:47 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Sorry to spoil the lovefest, but please ask Professor Ahmed how her appointment as a professor at the Prince Alwaleed Center at Harvard coincides with her views on human rights. How does his $20 million dollar grant buy off ignoring the persecution of gays and the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia?
In 2003, the Harvard Divintiy School agreed to accept $ 2.5 million dollars from Sheik Zayed of Abu Dhabi, despite his support of Holocaust Denial "research". Only open criticism of a brave few led to their reluctant refusal to accept it. However, the next year Harvard Divinty School accepted $2 million from an "anonymous donor" and 2 years later another $14.5 million (!!) from the UAE. (This has all been documented by Martin Kramer of the Shalem Institute in "Ivory Towers on Sand"). Arab money is buying academic propagandists at our universities while we spin it as proof of progress.
You can't make this stuff up. It's the suicide of Western Democracy.

Mar. 02 2011 10:18 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by