Monday, 9 January 2012

Revolution: The new question mark on women's rights?

Samira is a nine year old girl in post-revolution Egypt who is deeply influenced by her mother’s stories. Her mother was an active participant in the protests that mobilized the revolution and ousted Mubarak from power. Samira turns to her mother and voices a dream which is the hidden aspiration of many Arabic women - 'Mother, when I grow up - I want to become the prime minister of Egypt.' 

Will Samira's dream ever come true? This is a question that is facing several women in these Arabic countries where the recent revolutions and the ensuing rise of the empowered Islamist parties are threatening to consume the rights of women and their contribution in a political capacity. What is promising to pose serious complications for women is the conservative outlook that these parties hold towards women. They contest existing pro-women laws on religious grounds. This brings us to the eternal question - Will the revolution actually erode women's rights rather than improving them? 

While activists hoped that with the ouster of the dictatorship of Mubarak in Egypt and Zine Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, patriarchal customs would recede, women would find a new political stature and that they would active members in the new democracy - recent events promise otherwise.  

Case in point is Egypt, where the post revolution period has shown women being targeted. As early as March last year, on International Women's day, women demonstrators on Tahrir square saw resistance from men who claimed that the women' demands were against Islam. The day after this demonstration, seventeen women were taken to the Egyptian museum where they were verbally and physically abused and given electric shocks. They were later also subject to forced 'virginity tests' which have been condemned by feminists all over. The most recent and insulting of these sexist abuses took place on Dec 17th, when a woman demonstrator was assaulted and dragged across Tahrir square, while the armed forces tried to pull her clothes off, while physically assaulting her.. These appear to be a series of targeted attacks on women to terrorize them and to keep them out of political protests. While women had bravely fought along with men during those eighteen days of uprising last January, their rights are being ignored in the post-revolution period. 

The story is no different when it comes to political elections. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Nour - the conservative Salafi party, though required to have women as their party representatives, have stated that this representation is anti-Islamic. Women's political participation appears to be targeted as the military has decided to eliminate a 64 seat quota that existed in the Mubarak era. 

Another interesting aspect is that a lot of pro-women laws which address issues such as marriage, custody and the like, are being called into question - the argument made is that since they belong to the illegitimate regimes of Mubarak and Ben Ali, they need to be changed.  

Let’s turn to Libya, where on Liberation day, Jalil pledged to uphold Islamic laws , specifically to legalize polygamy. Many women in Libya have expressed resentment towards this - the fact that a man no longer needs to seek written consent from his wife to marry another woman, undermines their dignity. They also feel that there were far more important issues that needed to be addressed on Liberation day rather than polygamy.  

Even Tunisia, where women have historically enjoyed more rights than their counterparts in other countries, seems to have an ambiguous future.. It is unclear what connotation the Islamist party Ennahda's coming to power holds. While Ennahda promises to respect women's rights, many secularists doubt these promises and believe that the party is trying to appease both the progressive voter as well as the conservative thinkers. There have been political debates on previously silenced issues such as polygamy and forcing women to stay at women, but there is a marked absence of women from these debates. What signal does that send? Is it a warning sign that the extent of liberty women have enjoyed in Tunisia is in danger? 

The impact that the Islamist rule will have in each of these three states will be very unique and determined by the culture and political bend of mind of the common populace. There is no better time for activists and feminists to come together and to speak out. 

Given the fluidity of the situation, it is only when each individual voices their opinion that the Arabic woman will be able to boast of sustainable rights in these emerging post-revolution countries - something that will determine their fate not only in the political world but in the society as a whole. Over the last couple of years, women have passionately led public demonstrations, launched social media campaigns and been a significant element in the upheaval of the illegitimate regimes. To sum it up, they have fought to overthrow their dictators, but the question of the hour is - Can they overthrow male dominance?

By Kanika Jain Sah

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