Promise and peril: women and the ‘Arab spring’

Women were visible and effective in the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Will this moment of opening yield empowering outcomes? Deniz Kandiyoti argues that the greatest peril lies in truncated or aborted transitions where women’s rights are offered up as an item of populist compromise

Deniz Kandiyoti
8 March 2011

"Who says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will be beaten?" Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, member of April 6 Youth movement

Women’s energetic and inspiring participation in the popular demonstrations leading to the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is an established fact. The euphoria inspired by the prospect of a new civic sense in Egypt, the “spirit of Tahrir”, where Muslims and Christians prayed together, where men and women, the young and the old, stood shoulder to shoulder, where the young volunteered to clean the streets and women felt secure in a mixed-sex environment spoke of a profound yearning for an inclusive democracy, a restoration of agency and human dignity. A statement by women’s NGOs in Egypt articulated clear demands for new representation and a place at the table in the process of democratization and regime change - the desired but, so far, uncertain outcome of the revolts.

However, moments of triumph can also be moments of peril- as generations of women activists, whatever their cause, have already discovered. Trivializing their concerns seems to have got to an early start, judging by some dismissive reactions to their total absence from bodies negotiating the transition in Egypt. Will this moment of opening yield empowering outcomes?

The longer view: perverse associations?

The comparative literature on women and democratization, mainly based on Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe, presents a complex picture where women’s gains and losses appear to be both mixed and entirely context-specific. The task of taking stock of hurdles and opportunities must now begin in earnest for the Middle East and North Africa.

The women’s rights agenda comes laden with formidable burdens in the broader Muslim world. These take the form of a series of perverse associations. The best rehearsed are the effects of Western colonial domination- now extending to post-9/11 policies of the “war on terror” - and their catastrophic impact on local feminist platforms. The detractors of gender equality are able to draw upon an inexhaustible repertoire of charges of inauthenticity, betrayal and moral turpitude. This repertoire is constantly replenished as gender issues get caught up in the rhetoric of armed interventions ( in Iraq and Afghanistan), hypocrisy on the matter of autocratic “friendly” regimes and double standards on the Palestinian question. Women’s rights remain hostages of geopolitics.

The legacies of the past also count. The expansion of women’s citizenship rights occurred at a moment of post-colonial transition under the tutelage of dirigiste, single party regimes (Nasser in Egypt and Bourgiba in Tunisia) rather than by popular mandate. These governments abolished independent women’s associations, where they existed, setting up women’s organizations that were generally docile auxiliaries of the state, as was also the case with all other civil society bodies. They also eliminated their oppositions ruthlessly. Nonetheless, women’s juridical rights were expanded and their public presence gained greater legitimacy under the banner of national development. The “state feminisms” that underwrote the developmentalist agenda of these regimes were swept away by the neo-liberal transformations of the 1980s, giving way to the rise of both Islamist oppositional movements and a surge of state-sponsored religiosity (most notably in Egypt), alongside new forms of grass-roots activism. Women who, as elsewhere, had previously occupied a broad spectrum of political positions found themselves operating in an increasingly restricted discursive field where Islamist actors were the only organized opposition. The phase of state-led development, nonetheless, left behind cadres of educated, professional women who continued to be active in women’s movements alongside a diverse and savvy younger generation of women, both religious and secular.

The final set of perverse associations was established when women’s movements encountered the so-called “democracy promotion” agenda of the international donor community. Compliance with gender conditionalities - such as creating dedicated national machineries to monitor gender equality or increasing women’s political representation - represented a relatively soft option for authoritarian regimes of the single-party or dynastic varieties in comparison to moving towards more genuine democratic participation and a social justice agenda. Progress on women’s rights issues could thus be deployed as the democratic facade of non-democratic regimes.

This detracts nothing from the activism of, say, Kuwaiti women pushing for suffrage or Moroccan women advocating for a reform of their family laws. But it does point to the often problematic nature of the bargains on offer to women’s rights advocates: either playing along with governments that are mired, to different extents, in corruption and autocracy, or trying to find virtue in Islamist oppositions that offer relatively little room for manoeuvre on the gender justice front. It is precisely the possibility of transcending this impasse in a new polity where democracy means substantive inclusion and equality that inspires such great hope for women. What are the prospects for the realization of these aspirations?

A new politics?

In a prescient article presaging the spectacle of youth mobilization in Tunis and Egypt, Asef Bayat spoke of profound sociological changes in the Middle East. A new educated , technologically sophisticated and aspirational urban generation had arrived on the scene, the “middle class poor” joining the deprived popular classes in seeking a governance system to match their aspirations. This generation, identified as post-Islamist, may be one “which both wishes to promote pious sensibilities in society and takes democracy seriously”.

Given that Islamist opposition parties, in previously ambiguous relations of alternating repression and accommodation with autocratic regimes and their backers, are emerging as the best organized political forces, the question of the role of Islam in politics - and its vexed relations with gender equality - will inevitably come to the fore. It is important to stress that what is at issue here is not the amenability or otherwise of Islam qua religion to more egalitarian and pluralistic interpretations, but its concrete mode of insertion into specific politico-juridical contexts.

Although it is too early to judge, there are some subtle differences between the reactions of women’s groups in Tunisia and Egypt. Whereas in Tunisia there is a vocal debate about the role of the Islamist opposition, and some women’s groups are unabashedly indicating their preference for a secular state, the Egyptian debate appears more muted and less inclined to take on these issues head on. There is, admittedly, a great deal at stake for Tunisian women: the (still uncontested) Code of Personal Status promulgated by decree under Bourgiba and coming into effect in 1957 makes a break with shar’ia law in important respects, notably by introducing a ban on polygyny, requiring juridical divorce and marriage by mutual consent. There may be some parallels here with the militancy of the women’s movement in Turkey, intent on safeguarding and expanding existing rights, invoking, if and when necessary, the state’s treaty obligations vis a vis the UN (CEDAW) and the European Union.

The Egyptian trajectory was marked by vacillations on the place of Islam. Struggles for legitimacy in the post-Nasser period led to increasing Islamisation under Anwar Sadat , as part of his drive to distance his regime from Nasser’s Arab socialism and the Soviet Union. The Constitution was changed in 1980 to stipulate that the shar’ia was the source of Egyptian laws rather than a source of legislation, as was previously the case. The state’s opportunistic attempts to play up the legislative role of the shari’a coupled with the promotion of conservative religious discourse that dominated the public sphere under Hosni Mubarak, contributed to stunting freedom of expression and breeding intolerance and bigotry.

The process of transition is fluid and fraught with peril. Aside from the very real risks of stalled democratization, what will the emerging fault lines be that might put the cooperation among pro-democracy activists under strain ? Will the rights of women emerge as a divisive issue that is best bracketed, put on ice and left out of the debate? To take the constitutional drafting process as just one example, will the constitution declare that “Islam is the religion of the state” and that “Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation” as is currently the case? Or will the pre-1980 version of the constitution be re-visited? These are thorny issues that will reflect the power play among contending political actors. The more “neo-Mubarakist” the successor regime remains (in terms of safeguarding established vested interests and complying with existing international treaties) the more likely it is that issues pertaining to gender and women’s rights will be ceded to the most conservative political players.

In short, whatever the sociological realities on the ground there is no automatic path leading from a mobilized citizenry to an inclusive democracy, from aspirations to governance. The nature of the political compacts in successor regimes will be absolutely crucial to determining the degrees of latitude for a politics of gender equality,(or,for that matter, for a pluralist politics of inclusion). The greatest peril lies in truncated and aborted transitions where women’s rights are offered up as an item of populist compromise.

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