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In the Mideast, Women’s Hopes Give Way to Harsh Realities


International women's day in Egypt, March 2011. Women's revolutionary hopes for change in the Middle East have faded considerably. AL JAZEERA

Overshadowed by daily reports from a horrific war in Syria, lingering violence in Libya and sporadic protests in Egypt and other regional nations, a struggle to salvage and advance the rights of women caught up in the revolutions of the Arab Spring is reaching a crucial stage. Women who joined men in the streets, enduring beatings and abuse to demand democracy, now say that Islamic extremists are engaged in subversive campaigns to limit women’s rights, setting back the gains they made in recent decades.

Repression is often imported, to the distress of many women in countries where they enjoyed such freedoms as access to education, unhindered movement in society and travel abroad, as well as family planning and individual choices about how they want to dress. Zealots from Salafist and Wahabi sects originating in Mideastern nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia – or local men influenced by time spent there – have appeared across North Africa.

They are also emerging in Syria, activists say, where Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been arming  rebels against the government of Bashar al-Assad – just as earlier they assisted forces opposed to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. In Egypt, a generation of young men who found work in the Persian Gulf states brought back ultraconservative Muslim influences, and now give political support to fellow Salafists, who have used democratic elections to gain a significant foothold in government. Tunisian women also see the influence of militant Islamists, sometimes in direct assaults in the streets and on campuses.

“At Manouba Univer­sity in Tunis they tore down the Tunisian flag, replacing it with the black flag of their movement,” a report said in April published by the Washington-based International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), a nongovernmental organization focused on women’s activism in countries in conflict or undergoing transition. “Some female students who defied them were reportedly kicked in the genitals.”

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a co-founder of ICAN, said that Tunisian women were asking, “Who are you guys? Where did you come from?” She added that some clerics are now promoting not only the compulsory veiling and segregation of women but also the brutal practice of female genital mutilation.

Sanam Anderlini
Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, an Iranian activist.

Anderlini, an Iranian, was among the nongovernmental drafters of the groundbreaking Security Council Resolution 1325on women, peace and security, and in 2008 she was appointed lead consultant for a new United Nations Development Program initiative on “men and the gendered dimensions of violence in crisis contexts.” She has also served on the advisory board of the UN Democracy Fund.

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The civil action network and its partner, the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, held a conference in Istanbul in September that gathered concerned women from across the Muslim world. That conference drew attention to recently rising concerns in Syria, and heard from two Syrian women with first-person accounts. “What’s happening to women,” Anderlini said in an interview, “is not just a byproduct of attacks. Women have become targets.”

Muslim zealots are by wide agreement a minority in Islamic societies, but they see openings for their repressive and sometimes violent campaigns where revolutions have begun writing new constitutions and legal codes that try to balance democratic principles with mainstream Muslim practices.

In a new book, “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law From the Deserts of  Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World,” Sadakat Kadri tracks the re-emergence of sects like the Salafists, whom he sees today as distorting both the intellectual and legal history of Islam in the Arab world, Iran and South Asia. They are also obsessively contemptuous of women. “The criminal justice regimes that purport today to be eternally Islamic,” he writes, when considering agendas of radical Islamists, “are creatures of modernity – innovations even ….. ” not rooted in true historical Islam.

The United Nations’ Arab human development reports have demonstrated that most women in the Middle East and North Africa – known in UN shorthand as the MENA region – still have a long way to go to gain equality, even though at least some of their nations may be wealthy in material terms.

John Hendra, the deputy executive director of UN Women, said in a recent speech:Women living in the MENA region have the lowest rates of female labor force participation around the world, at 26 percent compared to the global average of 52 percent. This is a clear signal that they continue to face significant barriers to meaningful participation in socio-economic and public life.”

The Global Gender Gap Report 2011 from the World Economic Forum said last year that the region lagged behind every other part of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, in closing the gender gap on economic participation and opportunity and political empowerment.

A report last December by ICAN that examined the implications for women of the Arab Spring said ominously: “By omission or commission, the emerging male-dominated leaderships seem to forget that democracy without equality in all aspects of the law and full participation of 50% of the population is another form of authoritarianism.”

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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