The revolution in Tunisian and Egypt brought hope to women all over the Arab world, hope for democracy, gender equality and religious tolerance. However once the protests receded and the transitional political processes started in Egypt and Tunisia, women were once again side-lined.

Women’s involvement in the revolution is indeed not to be regarded as a mere expression of their will to topple dictators, but also as a proof of their demand for more equality and women’s rights in general. For many women the struggle began during the colonial era. However, although women have taken part in struggle for freedom and political demands, they have always been the forgotten members of past revolutions and repeatedly restricted to traditional roles and the domestic sphere. In Egypt, where the constitution was amended after the fall of Mubarak, women were not included in the Constitutional Committee created to take up the task. Furthermore, only one woman was appointed to the new 27-member interim government, which has in turn revoked the quota system that ensured women 64 seats of the 498-seat Egyptian parliament under the excuse that this law had been passed by the previous dictatorial regime.  Further protests calling for women’s equality after the fall of Mubarak, were met with hostility and violence. Women have during several occasions during the past year been beaten, verbally assaulted and sexually harassed by groups of hostile men.

In Egypt women’s issues are not a priority, but rather considered as a “sectarian demand.” There is a lack of political will but also a lack of awareness in Egyptian society of the importance of the matter. The lack of interest in women’s rights is not reserved for the Islamic parties solely, but prevalent in liberal and newly established parties too. One of the main problems is that women’s rights and concerns are regarded as questions for women and not in the interest of society as a whole. The challenge remains of putting women’s rights on the agenda.

Further media plays an important role for the portrayal and understanding of women’s role in society. Unfortunately stereotypes of women and men are perpetuated in the media sector.  Men are presented as experts in politics, economics and a range of other issue whereas women are rarely represented in this context. When women do appear on TV, it is often to be criticized.

In Tunisia it is significant that the first authority installed consisted of 35% women and this authority decided that the electoral lists have to contain 50 % women or the list will be considered void. In Tunisia, men including Islamists are supporting the feminist movement. The former dictator Ben Ali had awareness of women’s issues, so after the revolution the movement has to go beyond these politics. Today, all reservations against CEDAW have been lifted.

The drawback, though, is that although the lists contain 50% women, they are not placed on top of the lists and thus their participation is not guaranteed. Also, women are reluctant to join political parties and pose as candidates as the political arena is dominated by men and women face hard criticism on a personal level that men do not have to endure. Yet women in Tunisia have had somewhat more positive experiences in the transitional political process thanks to the gains women’s rights activists have made over the past 50 years. Tunisia is a country considered to be relatively progressive, with a Code of Personal Status, laws aimed at redressing the gender balance, which is one of the most modern in the Arab world. Women are consequently more represented in the public sphere in Tunisia than elsewhere in the Arab world as they constitute 26.6 % of the labour force and represented 27.6% (59 out of 214) of members of Parliament under President Ben Ali. The transitional period, too, displays a promising development for women in Tunisia. The requirements of 50% women on the electoral lists rendered 26% (57 seats) of the seats to women in the National Constituent Assembly. This assembly will be in charge of electing a new president and, more importantly, of creating a new constitution, thereby deciding what type of regime to implement in Tunisia. These women represent women elected rather than as appointed which was the case during the previous regime.

Women in Tunisia are given a voice, politics has become accessible for them, however many women are concerned with the return of Islamist parties to the political and public life, such as Tunisia’s al-Nahda. Although al-Nahda has made some progressive statements about women’s equality and its support for women’s rights, such as its opposition to legalising polygamy, there are some statements and actions that has led women’s rights activists to question al-Nahda’s motives and suspect a hidden, more conservative, agenda.

The risk of regression
The answer remains uncertain whether post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt promises an improved future for women’s rights in the region. There are however indications that if new decisions are not taken to protect women’s rights in politics, there could be stagnation, if not regression.

Government representatives, organisations, activist and supporters of women’s rights, including men, need to unite and form coalitions to actively pursue women’s rights at all levels of society. When women are given equal opportunities as men, society can truly prosper.

The Swedish institute Alexandria has since its start 2000 been devoted to support women’s rights. In the end of March the institute will organize a workshop for “Women in Politics” where 45 women from 8 governorates in Egypt will come to Alexandria to share their experiences and build strategies for increased participation of women in decision-making and in the public domain.

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Workshop in Tunis, February 2012

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