Women and the Arab Spring

Egyptian women were on the front lines of the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring has not expressly rallied for the advancement of women’s rights, though many have said that the empowerment they felt during the demonstrations should be used to effect change for women themselves. Now, however, many women are worried they are being sidelined in the formation of a new Egypt as the country’s de facto ruling body, the military, charts a framework for transition. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, talked to the Cairo Review about the days ahead for women in Egypt.

Egyptian women were on the front lines of the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring has not expressly rallied for the advancement of women’s rights, though many have said that the empowerment they felt during the demonstrations should be used to effect change for women themselves.

Now, however, many women are worried they are being sidelined in the formation of a new Egypt as the country’s de facto ruling body, the military, charts a framework for transition. Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and author of“Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East” talked to the Cairo Review about the days ahead for women in Egypt.

Cairo Review: As Egypt works on building its house, how do you see the current situation for women?

Isobel Coleman: I think the situation for women is a marker for the entire progressive agenda for Egypt. The revolution was very much orchestrated by young people. It was a secular revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood was late to the game. They signed on once it was in full swing, but they were not in the vanguard. This was a young secular revolution whose vision for Egypt would be amenable to women’s rights. Now where does it go?

The more secular progressive elements are quite marginal at the end of the day. And they are struggling to organize politically. There are a number of parties to come together. But they are little. They’re trying to unify under one umbrella but it has not happened. So they’re against the Muslim Brotherhood which is much better organized. And there are elements in the Brotherhood that are very conservative, very traditional that would want to be much more strict when it comes to rights for women.

But then there are younger members of the MB debating: what does the Muslim Brotherhood stand for? What does it mean for religious tolerance, guidance?

It’s a fluid situation that’s up for grabs.

Gender equality is a loaded question in the Middle East. The whole concept of gender equality in many people’s minds isn’t something aspired to – it’s culturally alien, sometimes translating as women trying to be men. It can be seen as a western import.

I don’t even like using the phrase. But what will occur in the coming years are pretty profound national conversations about what roles women should have in society. What should women do with their education? What say do they have in marriage, divorce and decision-making over children? All these things come wrapped up in a broader section of political and religious rights. Because after all, the most sensitive issue is family law which is very connected to Islamic law.

Cairo Review: With so much on the table, the question has become: is now the time to fight for these demands?

Isobel Coleman: If not now, then when? You lose a moment. You have an opportunity now. The law of the country is going to be rewritten. The important thing is that women don’t go backwards, that the rights that women currently have are not undermined by the new constitution and new laws. Egypt has some relatively progressive laws for women. But it also says no law can contradict Sharia. How that is interpreted and reconciled will be very important. But you don’t want to lose what constitutional rights already exist.

Cairo Review: How do you see the Arab Spring playing out for women?

Isobel Coleman: It’s an awakening of young people and their articulation for the type of world they want to live in. This world is somewhat pious but includes more political freedom. But what does that mean in terms of social freedom? We’ve heard a little less about that. And of course personal freedom, but it also impacts religious minorities and everyone a little differently outside the mainstream.

These traditionally have been very rigid societies. This whole notion of freedom is amorphous. Will new systems include minority rights? Women will be the biggest litmus test.

Cairo Review: Moving forward for new governments in the region, do you support representational quotas for women?

Isobel Coleman: I personally have gone back and forth on this issue because it has a downside, but at this stage when I look around at countries that have used quotas—if it were not for the quotas, you wouldn’t have any women’s representation, I think. Even if the women aren’t necessarily promoting a women’s friendly agenda, I think it’s effective. That happens. You’ve seen that in Pakistan and Iraq and Afghanistan. I think just having women in the public space as political leaders, and by going to work everyday they’re breaking stereotypes. And I think it shortcuts women’s advancement and entry into government by a generation or more.

Cairo Review: What is your prognosis on “gender equality” in Egypt?

Isobel Coleman: I view this as – the whole question of women’s rights as a litmus test for the whole revolution. Is Egypt going to become a much more conservative place dominated by religious parties? Or is it going to be a much more vibrant open system where religious leaders will have to govern among many types. I’m hopeful it’ll be the latter, but it remains to be seen how they will fare in completely new landscapes.

Cairo Review: Do the Muslim Brotherhood and, distinctly, the new boogeyman – the Salafis – pose legitimate threats?

Isobel Coleman: I don’t think they pose a political threat, but they’ve made cultural inroads. The Salafi narrative for women is definitely going backwards. It’s a question of how much traction and appeal in the new Egypt that Salafi mentality will have.

The problem isn’t gender equality or women’s equality. The problem is the broader question of human rights. And democracy.  That’s the big picture problem. Many of these youth from Tahrir – the revolutionaries – go to places outside of Cairo and people walk away when they start talking about democracy. Forget about women’s rights. They can’t get even traction for democracy and human rights. Some of the young more secular leaders in Tahrir will grow increasingly frustrated in getting some Egyptians to engage on big picture issues. Around the country where they’ve held sessions…people are skeptical and suspicious. And not even interested in some of these big picture political questions, let alone gender equality. So I think multiple approaches will be required, using different languages for different communities. You’re talking about 85% of Egyptians who say they want a constitution that gives a central role to Sharia. What does that mean exactly? How will that be interpreted? These are important questions.

Cairo Review: What is the legacy of Mubarak’s perceived advancement of women’s rights?

Isobel Coleman: The problem for women’s rights in Egypt is that it’s so closely associated with Mubarak and Suzanne Mubarak. Many human rights activists and women’s rights activists have moved away from women’s rights agenda in Egypt because it was so closely related to Suzanne and they didn’t want to be complicit in her agenda.

Mubarak was a stooge of America. He was the water boy of the west. Of course he’d have quotas for women…they wanted to promote gender rights. So the quotas were not legitimate. If in fact the new government is more representative and freely-elected, if they have quotas, they will have more credibility.

But it seems there’s a quiet revolution going on for women. In America, many people stop me and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Women used to wear mini-skirts around Cairo, now they wear headscarves. They have gone backwards.” There’s still very much a conflation with the headscarf and oppression of women that some people in the West still can’t move beyond. And of course it’s a much more complex issue than that. And in a country like Egypt, many women began wearing the headscarf for a variety reasons. Some wear it because its an outward side of piety. Or a political statement. Many wore it as a statement against enforced secularism of the Mubarak regime. Or authoritarian secularism in general. It’s complicated, but a point many in the west still can’t move beyond. And need to.

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