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Will the Arab Spring Alter the Status of Women? By Dr. Hoda Badran

                Historicallywomen participated shoulder to shoulder with men in almost every revolutionwhich has happened in any country around the world. They were partners in theFrench Revolution and other revolutions in Europe, in Latin America, in Algeria andrecently in the Arab spring. They demonstrated on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt,Libya, Yemen and Syria lifting banners with theagreed upon revolutionary demands. When the dust of the revolutions settled inthe Arab world, and the countries began their transition process towarddemocracy, women found themselves marginalized, excluded and denied partnershipin decision making positions. In Tunisia, for example, a massdemonstration called for all women to be veiled. Unveiled, female professors ofreligion were hounded off campuses. The mobs shouted at Tunisian womendemonstrating to go back to the kitchen and stay at home. In Egypt,conservative thinking is on the rise and voices are becoming stronger onpolicies which would trigger a regression on the achievements women gainedbefore the revolution. An example of this includes the reforms that were madeto legislation of the family.  


                Gettingangered and alarmed by such developments Arab women had to take measures to defendtheir rights and to ensure their partnership in the transitional process oftheir respective countries. Tunisian women had applied pressure and succeededin bringing a law on electoral parity between men and women in April of 2011. Asa result, women won 49 seats in the parliament out of a total of 217 seats i.e.22.6 percent in the October election. In Egypt, women failed to keep thepre-revolution quota system which gave them 64 seats in the parliament. Thesystem was abolished to be replaced by a new electoral law which compelspolitical parties to include at least one woman on their candidacy list. Almostall of the parties placed female candidates at the tail of their lists and as aresult only nine women were elected to the present parliament. Two other womenwere appointed by the Senior Council of the Armed Forces "SCAF"bringing the percentage of women in the present parliament to about twopercent. Moreover, both present parliaments in Tunisiaand Egyptare dominated by Islamist groups who constitute the majority of membership.Drafts of legislations which reflect a restrictive interpretation of Shariaaparticularly related to the status of women are being submitted for debate. Asan example, polygamy is debated in many Arab countries with the intention toallow its practice without any restrictions even in countries where it wasprohibited by law prior to the Arab spring. In Egypt, the legislative committee ofthe parliament received a proposal to lower the age of marriage for girls to 12years of age instead of 18 which is presently stipulated by law. This would constitutedifficulties for girls education.      


                Thechallenges faced by Arab women are surmounting every day. The question is beingraised as to whether or not the Arab spring will bring them a future ofequality and freedom they expected and dreamed of. The answer to this questionis not an easy one as the future is highly unpredictable with the currentsocial and political climate. It is dependent on assumptions, on the presentand on what actions we as well as other actors may undertake. This article willfocus on the Egyptian case in an effort to assess what impact the January 25threvolution will have on the future status of Egyptian women.


                TheEgyptian revolution was characterized by equality between the different groupsand actors who initiated it on the 25th of January. There was noeffort from any of the groups at that time to take a leadership role. The powertransactions operated in two directions between the institutionalized HosniMubarak regime, and the people in the squares and on the streets includingwomen, all as a collective. The demands of the revolution were specifically focusedon freedom, dignity and social justice. They were raised and chanted by all theactors including women as one group. Looking at the present scene and as Egyptmarches through its transition process to democracy the situation is quitedifferent. The unified group against the Mubarak regime has become divided andeach has its own position in the power struggle with varying interests. Theoverall goals of the revolution are now seen by the actors from differentperspectives and translated into details by each to promote specific groupinterests. Two actors stand out strongly in terms of their position in thepower transactions, namely, the Senior Council of Armed Forces "SCAF"on one hand and the Islamists including the Moslem Brotherhood and the Salafistson the other hand. Other actors include the political parties, the youthcoalitions, the feminist groups and others such as Al Azhar, the Church and theMedia.


                Womensposition at present in the power transactions is unfortunately weak, althoughimproved from a few months ago. The Governmental Council for Women"NCW" has been restructured, a new feminist union "EFU" wasestablished and some coalitions of feminist NGOs were created. However, theyare not yet organized to the extent needed to work effectively as a collective. 


                Topredict the future status of Egyptian women, one can visualize three possible scenarios.Each is dependent on variables such as the course of the present situation, theactions taken by women themselves, the actions of other actors, and certainassumptions based on this combination.


                Thefirst scenario is the military regime scenario. It assumes that the SCAF willtake steps and procedures to support the military candidate, namely GeneralShafeek who would become the president of Egypt. In that case, the countrywill continue to be ruled by a military system which started in July 1952 byNaguib and Abdel Nasser followed by Sadat and then Mubarak. The new militarysystem may not be an exact replica of the pre-revolution one but could havesome changes to accommodate other strong actors in the field. The newconstitution may give the president extensive authority, restrict the power ofthe executive system and give the army the same privileges it had before therevolution. The problem with militarism is that it allows the use of deliberateand organized physical force to realize its policies. Power is its ideologywith material and non-material manifestation. Its material form can include theabuse of human rights. The ideological manifestation of militarism includes a hierarchicalsystem which is not accountable to the people. It is based on a dominant/submissivetype of relationship which has its ramifications for interpersonalrelationships. Militarism and patriarchy are inextricably linked. They bothdefine masculinity as opposites to femininity. If soldiers and by extension allreal men are strong and daring, then real women have to be the opposite, namely,passive, obedient and  in need ofprotection as good wives, sisters and mothers. In a nutshell militarism opposesgender equality and within this scenario womens status in Egypt willbecome worse than before the revolution. Hopefully the Egyptian Feminist Union which was recently established can gain strength,unify women within its structure and strive successfully to have a strongposition on the power transactions in society to defend their rights.


                TheSecond scenario is the Islamist regime scenario. It assumes that the comingpresident of Egyptwill be from an Islamist group, the parliament will continue to be dominated bythat group and the new constitution will reflect a religious state. TheIslamist groups have a historic love/hate relationship with the pre-revolutionaryregimes. Nasser befriended them but laterrejected them after accusing them of planning his assassination. Sadat followeda similar policy and was assassinated by one of their members. Mubaraks regimepersecuted them and imprisoned them in great numbers. They managed however inspite of all the difficulties to grow in number and in organizing themselves.As soon as Mubarak was unseated, many of them who had immigrated outside of Egypt returnedfrom different countries. The majority of the Islamist groups, particularlythose who came back from Saudi Arabia followed the Wahabi ideology of Islamwhich is the most restrictive to gender issues. Within this scenario, thestatus of women will become much worse than it was before the revolution. Witha parliament dominated by the Islamists, they as a majority can succeed inpassing a number of legislations which would lead to the disempowerment ofwomen. These would include lowering the age of marriage for girls to 12 yearsinstead of 18 years, make polygamy the rule and not the exception and deprivewomen from an equal right to divorce. They may impose wearing the veil andlater on the "Niqab". This scenario would represent a real setback tothe status of women, and will require immense effort on the part of women’srights activists to ensure its prevention.


                Thethird scenario is the democratic scenario, which assumes that a liberalpresident will be elected. He would appoint a liberal government with womenrepresenting about one third of the cabinet.


                Anew parliament will have to be elected to replace the existing one which wouldbe dissolved on the basis of a court decision. The new parliament willrepresent the different ideologies with no dominance from one group, but with areasonable majority from the liberal parties. A quota would be reinstated forwomen to raise their percentage in the parliament to about 30 percent. Withinthis scenario, the Egyptian Feminist Unionwould gain strength through board membership of NGOs and through buildingbridges with allies in political parties, with labor unions and professionalsyndicates. A women’s movement is created with agreed upon goals andleadership. Efforts to change the family law which started before therevolution will take steps forward. As a result, divorce will be only through ajudicial court and harmful legislation such as polygamy will be prevented. Finally,women would be given equal opportunity to leadership roles which havetraditionally been inaccessible. 


                Thisscenario is the hope for the future status of women and for Egypt. It is afeasible scenario if all stakeholders join forces to complete Egyptstransitional process to democracy.