The Arab Intifada and Women's Rights

By Valerie M Hudson and Patricia Leidl | Published by World Politics Review The massive, exhilarating protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen mark a sea change for the better in the Arab world. But the implications of the uprisings for women in these countries have not yet been fully analyzed. All of the countries currently experiencing upheaval have made significant progress for women -- progress that could be swept away very easily, as it was in Iran in 1979, never to be regained.

Tunisia promulgated one of the most-enlightened personal-status codes for women in the Arab world in 1956, under Habib Bourguiba. Polygyny, the taking of multiple wives, was outlawed; men could no longer unilaterally and extra-judicially divorce their wives through simply declaring the divorce -- or "talaq" -- three times; and women were granted rights to divorce and to child custody. Tunisian women are not compelled to don the veil, and the legal minimum age for marriage for girls is 17. There is virtually no segregation of women in public, and women are able to move freely outside their homes. Though not a big country, Tunisia has had an outsized influence on Islamic debate concerning women's rights.

By contrast, the hard fought battle for women's rights in Egypt has been marked by ebbs and flows. Female circumcision, practiced there as infibulation, was banned in 1997, then re-legalized, before being banned once again in 2008, largely due to the personal efforts of First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Women's right to divorce has also been the object of a long battle in Egypt. The Egyptian parliament blocked demands for reform throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Faced with deadlock, President Anwar Sadat bypassed the legislature and unilaterally issued an emergency decree reforming family law in 1976.

Among the decree's most-debated provisions, one entitled any wife unilaterally divorced by talaq to at least two years financial compensation. Another required the divorcing husband to provide independent housing for a divorced wife with custody of minor children -- most controversial in crowded Egypt. The decree also presumed harm to any wife whose husband took an additional wife, granting her the right to an automatic divorce. Nicknamed "Jihan's Law" after Jihan Sadat, the president's wife, the reform was struck down by the judiciary under strong pressure from religious conservatives.

A new law, again championed by Suzanne Mubarak and passed in 2000 with the support of the Hosni Mubarak government, finally cut the Gordian knot of divorce rights by simply allowing wives to exercise "khul" divorce, in which a woman can freely divorce if she returns her dower payment to the husband.

By contrast, Yemen has never had progressive laws for women. However, with increasing U.S. aid has come pressure to clean up the worst excesses of their mistreatment. Recent flashpoints include the age of marriage for Yemeni women. As a result of several high-profile cases -- such as that of Nujood Ali, married at 8, divorced at 9 -- there has been substantial pressure on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by his Western supporters to reform this element of family law. More than 25 percent of Yemeni girls are given in marriage before age 15, and disagreement remains over whether there is even a legal minimum age of marriage in the country. Respected Muslim leaders issued a religious decree calling on the state to make it illegal for girls to marry before 17, and the legislature passed a law in 2009 to do just that, only to have the law cancelled the very next day on procedural grounds. Reconsideration of legislative action in 2010 led to a situation where "members of parliament from different political parties jumped at each other with sticks and shoes during a heated debate on the minimum age of marriage." Adding to the tumult, a cleric closely associated with al-Qaida, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, has sworn to collect a million signatures to contest any proposed change in marriage age.

Those who care about the situation of women in the Middle East view the current uprising with mixed emotions, celebrating the expression of human freedom while wondering about the future of women's freedom. Why is the issue of women's status so important for the future of the Middle East? In 2002, the pathbreaking Arab Human Development Report (.pdf) identified the generally low status of women in Arab societies to be one of the four major variables retarding growth and advancement. This analysis was elaborated in the 2005 report (.pdf), which argued that "the rise of women is in fact a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance, inseparably and causally linked to the fate of the Arab world." Research has shown that the better off women are, the more secure the nation-state is, whether on the level of health, wealth, corruption, conflict, or social welfare.

At her recent TED talk, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, "The United States has made empowering women and girls a corner stone of our foreign policy because women's equality is not just a moral issue, it's not just a humanitarian issue, it is not just a fairness issue. It is a security issue, it is a prosperity issue, and it is a peace issue. . . . [I]t's in the vital interests of the United States of America."

Hopefully this message is being communicated by our diplomats at the highest levels to actors such as the new prime minister of Tunisia and major Egyptian opposition figures. Safeguarding women's rights should be made a precondition of any eventual American support, including economic assistance, for their governments.

Women's gains made in Tunisia and Egypt, and in the offing in Yemen, are exceptionally fragile. Any new government might choose to prove its Islamic bona fides by putting women in their "proper" place. The U.S. has a compelling interest to help ensure that the women of these countries, often at the front lines of the massive demonstrations spreading through the region, do not find themselves less free once the current dictatorships fall.

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