Women and Democracy Building in the Middle East

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

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.