North African Dispatches | (Arab) Woman’s Hour?
New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 10:38 - 7 Comments
By Imad Mesdoua
The Arab Spring represents a remarkable opportunity for Arab women to take back their rightful place in their own societies as equals. Though in essence most of the uprisings have not had any particularly female-oriented agenda underlying them, women should use this opportunity to challenge the status-quo and bring forward the idea that their emancipation is an essential factor behind any society’s development and well-being.
The MENA region’s economy, society and politics continue to be monopolised by men (of all ages and social backgrounds) who look down on female leadership and participation disdainfully. From society’s building block ( the family home) upwards, women face an uphill struggle to feel safe and respected as equal citizens in their own nations. Conservative Arab elites should face reality sooner or later: their societies will never be able to move forward so long as women continue to be treated as second-hand citizens under the tutelage of men.
Tunisia offers the best example of what adequate legislation should look like. Its long march towards total legal equality can and should be the model that other Arab nations in the region need to adopt. Its experience also provides policy makers and civil society activists with valuable lessons as to the downfalls of wanting too much too soon or moving too slowly in an effort to please everyone.
Tunisia is currently the only North African country with substantial equal rights for men and women. It boasts legislation from 1956 entirely prohibiting polygamy, giving women equal status as head of family (thereby rejecting the idea that a women has to obey her husband or her in-laws) and eliminating the right afforded to men to unilaterally divorce their wives. Women in Tunisia are even afforded the right to abortion which is a laudable and one-of-a-kind step forward in the region. One can only hope that Ennahda’s ( Tunisian Islamic party) emphatic rise to power in recent elections will not put an end to such outstanding progress.
When Arab women are not facing the condescension of the patriarchal system, they must also face similar treatment from conservative female voices. Just this week, one of Ennahda’s up and coming stars Souad Abderrahim, a newly elected MP for the capital Tunis, equated all single mothers to ‘immoral sinners’ whose very existence brings shame unto Tunisian society. Reprimandable comments to say the least. Abderrahim’s comments are nothing more than an indiscriminate attack on a category of women already vulnerable to an entire society’s contempt.
In neighbouring Algeria, Parliament recently overturned proposed government legislation to afford Algerian women a timid (very timid) 20-40% quota representation in the country’s parliament. Instead, they offered bland, makeshift legislation smothered in loopholes to avoid dealing with the underlying issue. The country’s leading female politician, Louisa Hanoune, runner-up in Algeria’s last presidential elections, fell victim to hackers who covered her political party’s website with messages calling for her to return to her rightful place: her kitchen.
Why not have a solid 50% female representation in Parliament and within political formations themselves? Why is it so difficult to envisage a 50-50% parity in male-female ministers in government? Despite the gradualists’ claims that Arab society is not ready for such bold measures, who better than the state to take a lead on these issues? The cliche has it that when there is a will there is a way! Sadly, there is currently no political will to see such equality exist.
Similar stories emanate from Egypt. Despite some symbolic advances afforded to women, your rights as a woman depend to a large extent on which social class you hail from. Women in Cairo’s elite are less likely to face the overwhelming burden of the conservative patriarchal society than women from inner Egypt or the slums of the country’s capital.
Egyptian women face the remarkably pervasive (no pun intended) and ever present scourge of sexual harassment. No woman in Cairo (or any of Egypt’s major cities for that matter) can honestly say she has not once felt the daily humiliation that comes from being harassed morally and/or physically walking down the streets or on public transportation. Such outrageous behaviour towards women does not limit itself to Egypt but is symptomatic of a culture that objectifies women and holds them responsible for the condemnable actions of their harassers.
Rather than hold rapists and molesters accountable, our societies reflexively blame women for supposedly dressing inappropriately or bringing shame to their families by speaking out against their ill-treatment. I certainly would not want my kids to grow up in a society where they should have to ponder whether or not what they are wearing is likely to predict what happens to them out on the street . Would you?
Thankfully, Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab decided to break the taboo , which virtually exists in all Arab countries, and speak out . His movie ‘678’ powerfully echoes the destiny of three Egyptian women from varying backgrounds who decide to fight back against such oppression.
Arab Women need to feel secure in their own streets, in their work places and in their homes. In order to do this, only bold and severe legislation protecting all women seeking refuge and safety in the state’s laws, will bring about major change. In the poverty stricken areas of North Africa’s major agglomerations, conservatism of the worst possible kind has been left to fester to avoid rustling feathers.If nothing is done to overturn such developments, the uprisings of the Arab Spring are at a risk of becoming new oppressions replacing older ones.
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