Cairo, Egypt The growing strength of Islamist political parties in the Mideast’s new democracies makes one wonder what will happen to Arab women’s rights.
I’m not talking of women in Saudi Arabia, where they are still fighting for the right to drive and are relegated to segregated workplaces, but of countries where working women have long been the norm.
Thousands of women took part in Egypt’s Tahrir Square demonstrations, and young Tunisian women played a major role in their revolution. In Egypt, middle-class women have long held professional jobs.
On this trip, I’ve met impressive Egyptian women business executives in banking, food production, and marketing. I met Tunisian women who were diplomats, engineers, professors, and pharmacists. (Forty percent of Tunisia’s doctors are women, along with 30 percent of its dentists and judges.)
Yet now that the Islamist party Ennahda has won a plurality in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice Party (a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot) is set to do likewise in Egypt, many active women in both countries are nervous.
Leaders of both these Islamist parties insist they won’t reverse women’s progress. Whether they keep their promises will be the litmus test of whether they are as moderate as they claim.
The pledge to respect women’s rights appears much more credible in Tunisia. Ennahda party leaders insist they support the family status law that bans polygamy and gives women the right to divorce, get child custody, hold property, work, and travel. Indeed, Ennahda’s top leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, told me in an interview that he would try to expand the law to ensure that women get equal pay for equal work.
“We hope (this law) can’t be rolled back,” says Lilia Labidi, a professor of anthropology and clinical psychology — who is Tunisia’s energetic minister of women’s affairs. She arrived at a breakfast meeting in a neat black pantsuit, with a large white flower pin, having just stood in line for more than three hours to cast her first vote in a free election. She had refused to jump the long queue on account of her ministerial position. (Ghannouchi jumped the queue at his polling place and was booed.)
“If Ennahda does what it says, things will be OK,” Labidi declared.
Tunisia’s election law required every other candidate on party lists to be female, so there should be a substantial bloc of women in the new constitutional assembly. Yet, even in Tunisia — where urban women are as likely to have uncovered hair as to wear head scarfs — women’s future progress is uncertain.
Many Tunisian women still live in dire situations. Labidi says that 30 percent of girls in poor areas can’t go to school — even though the law requires it — because the roads are bad and there are no buses to take them. And almost a third of Tunisian women are still illiterate.
At a time when the Tunisian economy is flailing, women’s issues may be low on the agenda. And the funds to address the problems are lacking. Labidi says her ministry has a tiny budget and a small, insufficient staff.
Nor, she believes, is the world paying enough attention. In September, she left the U.N. General Assembly early because she felt no one was focused on the needs of women in the Arab Spring. She said the $700-per-night cost of her hotel room could be better spent on a project for rural women.
Many secular Tunisians told me they feared that, in a bad economy, women might be pressured to give up government jobs to men. (This happened in Iraq.) They also feared that Islamists’ focus on the family may produce social pressure for women to stay home — and to veil.
Hard-line salafi groups and imams have emerged in Tunisia since the revolution; their numbers are still small, but they openly demand curbs on women’s rights. And the Ennahda rank and file may be more conservative than its leaders.
I could see the different tendencies within the party when I attended a large election rally the day before the Oct. 23 elections. Women were shepherded into a separate seating section from men; but on the podium, one of the top Ennahda candidates was an unveiled woman.
Yet Ennahda has the possibility of becoming the model of moderate Islam, and demonstrating that women’s rights are compatible with that religion. Its leaders say they recognize they can’t win without wooing women, who make up half of the voters. How this Islamist party handles the women’s issue will define its image — at home and abroad.
That positive role model becomes all the more important since Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party looks unlikely to provide it. The party has two women among its 12 party leaders, but the Muslim Brotherhood, from which it springs, has none in its innermost circle. The party does have an active women’s movement, and it will field female candidates. But, I’m told that most if not all are the wives of Brotherhood activists.
There has been progress: In 2007, Brotherhood leaders famously said that no woman should be president; now they say their party would not nominate a woman. Party lists are only required to contain one woman, and they don’t get top slots.
Moreover, the influence of salafis here, with their satellite TV stations and donations from the Arab Gulf, has fed a sweeping conservative mood that does not bode well for women’s rights. The only national organizational platform for women — the National Council on Women — has been shut down because it was linked to Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the deposed president.
Women in Egypt need help in organizing to defend their rights, as well as to start businesses. Tunisian women need that help, too. Western governments and nongovernmental organizations should target aid and loans to empower women, and offer them training for jobs, starting small businesses, and running for office.
In this uncertain time of transition, Western countries should be helping Arab women help themselves.