The Arab Spring’s Backward Leap for Women

CAIRO – This summer, as the dust of the Arab Spring revolutions begins to settle, women – who stood shoulder to shoulder with men in defying tyranny – are finding themselves marginalized and excluded from decision-making. Despite the new freedoms championed by the revolutionaries, women continue to be regarded as subordinate to men.

In Tunisia, a mass protest called for all women to be veiled, which led to unveiled female religion professors being hounded off campuses. Mobs shouted at Tunisian women demonstrators to go back to the kitchen “where they belong.” In Egypt, too, conservative forces are on the rise, demanding policies – particularly reforms of family legislation – that would represent a step backward for women.

Angered and alarmed by these developments, Arab women have been forced to defend their rights. In April 2011, Tunisian women successfully pressed for an electoral-parity law, thanks to which they won 49 of 217 parliamentary seats in last October’s elections. In Egypt, though, the prospects for women seem gloomier, because they failed to retain the pre-revolution quota system that had given them 64 parliamentary seats.

That system was replaced by a new electoral law that obliges political parties to include at least one woman on their candidate lists. But almost all of the parties put female candidates at the end of their lists; as a result, only nine women were elected to the parliament. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the ruling junta, appointed two more women, bringing the share of women MPs to about 2%.