Arab Spring nations backtrack on women’s rights, polls says

CAIRO (Reuters) – Arab women played a central role in the Arab Spring, but their hopes the revolts would bring greater freedom and expanded rights for women have been thwarted by entrenched patriarchal structures and the rise of Islamists, gender experts in the countries say.

Almost three years after popular uprisings toppled autocratic leaders in one of the most conservative corners of the world, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on 22 Arab states showed three out of five Arab Spring countries in the bottom five states for women’s rights.

Egypt emerged as the worst country to be a woman in the Arab world today, followed closely by Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Egypt scored badly in almost every category, including gender violence, reproductive rights, treatment of women in the family and their inclusion in politics and the economy.

Arab Spring countries Syria and Yemen ranked 18th and 19th, respectively – worse than Sudan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and insurgency-hit Somalia, which scored better on factors such as political and economic inclusion, women’s position in the family, reproductive rights and sexual violence.

Libya and Tunisia came in 9th and 6th.

But while the situation is dire, some activists saw reasons for optimism. For one thing, the revolts led more poor women and those on the margins to be aware of their rights.

Women’s rights have traditionally been a concern of the “intellectual elite” in Egypt, where many are illiterate and live below the poverty line, said Nihad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights.

“We used to suffer from the fact that talk of women’s rights came across as talk … limited to the creme-de-la-creme ladies of society,” she told Reuters.

“But the big challenge women faced led to women’s issues being discussed on the street by ordinary women and illiterate women.”

The questions to 336 gender experts invited to take part in the poll were based on key provisions of the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discri-mination Against Women, which all Arab Spring states have signed or ratified. The polling took place in August and September.

Egypt’s ranking below Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving and need permission from a male guardian to work or travel, reflects widespread concerns about harassment, which was mentioned by almost every respondent as a major issue.

A UN report on women in April said up to 99.3 per cent of women and girls in Egypt are subjected to sexual harassment.

Samira Ibrahim, a pro-democracy protester who was subjected to an invasive virginity test while in detention when the military council was in power after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, said “harassment is the biggest problem facing us now”.

But the ranking also indicates a surge in violence and a rollback of freedoms since the 2011 uprising, experts said.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt, culminating with the election of President Mohamed Mursi, angered many prominent activists who say the Islamist group infringed on women’s rights.

A year into office, Mursi was toppled in a military takeover after mass protests against his rule.

While there is a slight improvement in political participation for women under the army-backed interim government, there is still a long way to go, some analysts said.

“The whole image of women during Mursi’s rule was that a woman is a mother who should be bearing children and that is the most important thing,” Fatma Khafagy, who heads the Om-budsman office for gender equality in Egypt, told Reuters. “The whole discourse was against women’s rights and gender equality.”

The Brotherhood warned that a UN declaration on women’s rights could destroy society by allowing a woman to travel, work and use contraception without her husband’s approval and letting her control family planning.

“Things changed after Mursi was removed – for the better. At least these threats were not there. However, I do not see much increase in women in decision-making,” Khafagy said.

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