Tuesday, 22 January 2013

More harm than good?

Two years have passed since the revolution took the Arab World by storm. Although many regimes have plunged into a state of chaos, much must to be said about the resilience of the people behind the movements. Rebellious movements channelized several years of existential angst of the people in the Middle East. For women in the Middle East, who heretofore were oppressed in most countries, the revolutions had a promise of equality within them – they bore the promise of equality, of a new regime where they would not just be respected, but would also be put on par with the men in their society.

These women fought – they fought with bravery in their stride. Be it the girl who was molested, stripped and beaten in public, or be it the brave blogger that spent time bravely telling the world of her story in the midst of an upheaval. Women were an integral part in every revolution. They participated in every riot that helped topple decades-old draconian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. They still do, in Syria.
But the hopes that ran high with the beginnings of the Arab Spring have begun to dwindle – there are increasing signs that prove that women are being left out of the political process. Women in these countries have faced a life bereft of some core fundamental rights that included the freedom of dressing and movement, and participation in the socio-political life of their country. Today, after their past dictators have been overthrown, fear runs rife in these women for their fundamental rights – because conservative forces are slowly gaining ground after the overthrow. In Tunisia and Egypt, and slowly now, Libya, Islamist-led governments have taken shape. The balance between secularism and conservatism is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain with the persistence of conservative traditionalism. There is the looming fear of a possible continuation of the Sharia Law, which when manifests in hardliner interpretation and enforcement, can be jeopardizing to the overarching umbrella of women’s rights.
In Tunisia, the new Constitution has been drafted without so much as a sensitization or a care for women’s rights. Defining them as being “complementary to men” under Article 28 of its draft version, the Constitution has actually gone on print to render women second-class citizens. Egypt’s first democratically elected president had made a promise in his campaign to ensure that women will be given access to all their rights – but not without the added caveat that these rights have to be “consistent with the values of Islamic Law”, and “maintaining the balance between their duties and rights.” The gender gap is easily evident. In the pre-revolution election in 2010, 12% of the candidates returned in Egyptian Elections were women. In the first elections in post-revolution Egypt, only 2% of the successful candidates were women. In Libya, though electoral laws have been passed in a bid to welcome the participation of women in political life, the new cabinet shows a glaring disparity between rhetoric and practice: there are only two women in the new government.

This is evidence of a continued undercurrent of relegating women to social roles. It is not “Islamic culture” that is doing this – for Islam is a religion and not a “culture” – as some people are likely to construe it. It is the hardliner notion that women are simply not equal to men.

And yet, though, it is still a little too early to determine whether this will be the plight of women for good, in the region. That is the thing about transitions: nothing is set in stone. This is doubly the case for these countries, because the transition from decades-long dictatorships to the dawn of democracy was almost overnight. But this interim can be useful: it can be a window of opportunity for those that were marginalized to be inducted into an included setting. By themselves, those that were once marginalized have begun taking initiative to put all hands on board: with attempts to discuss the possible ways of preparing the new constitutions, the rule of law and the role of religion in legislation and in society.

These countries are on the threshold of a new future. But caution rings strong: they can either go right ahead and claim their bright future, or, slide right back into the past.

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