When Will Arab Women Get Their Spring?

Article Summary
Arab political upheavals have consistently failed to redress the discrimination women face in Arab societies, writes Fadia Fahd. The emergence of Islamist governments across the region could endanger the social gains that women have fought so hard to achieve, she warns.

The slogans of centuries past — which have nothing to do with the Six-Day War of 1967 or the upheavals of 2011 — can still be heard in 2012. These slogans find their substance in the hardships, misery and injustice endured by women since long before the 1967 setback or the recent upheaval. These slogans are directly relevant to the kinds of governments that will be imposed by the Islamists who have come to power in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and other countries, scoring major electoral victories under the guise of fairness, justice, development and freedom.

Now that these parties are in power, the path of women will be fraught with danger. The fact is that these parties’ rise to power raises profound questions about what kind of future lies in store for women. The justice that women recently obtained thanks to painstaking efforts, as well as the legitimate laws that women are still demanding could be rolled back or discarded.

Tunisian women are struggling to preserve the gains they have achieved in terms of gender equality, which can in part be attributed to the legacy of the late President Habib Bourguiba. Meanwhile, acclaimed Egyptian female artists are expressing concern over the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt may impose restrictions regarding the appearance of women in movies and on TV, such as requiring them to wear the veil. These artists also voice deep concern over the shrinking role of women in society. One Egyptian actress known for her bold roles responded jokingly, "Even in religious series, they will always need women to play the devil!”

This suggests that we are about to witness the return of old —­ and perhaps the emergence of new — types of oppression against women. We might witness a resurgence of persecution whereby women’s actions are classed as either Halal (permissible by the Qur’an) or Haram (banned act), and where women are thought of as "demons" that must be tamed.

It was disgraceful and shameful for the Lebanese law on marital abuse to be rejected by parliament, especially given that the reason for the objection was that the law "incites women to abandon the marital house, and is not in line with our traditions and habits.” Has violence against women become rooted in our traditions and habits? Have we become incapable of enacting a law which protects women from sick men addicted to beating and violence? Doesn't this refusal encourage men to relentlessly persist in their tyranny?

Worse, a Lebanese judge included the following explanation for his leniency in sentencing a man who killed one of the women in his family under the pretext of “honor”: "He had no choice, because he is a tribesman and he had to abide by the traditions of his tribe.”

According to a recently published study, the abolition of Article 562 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which mitigated the sentences of murderers who kill women with the excuse of protecting their family honor, does not preclude the accused being excused for other reasons which may minimize their sentences. This, in essence, reduces the efficacy of punishment as a deterrence. For instance, the judiciary might take into account the emotional state of the accused and reduce his sentence accordingly by using certain language to describe his mental condition. The judiciary can still deem that the accused was afflicted by emotions such as instability, a nervous breakdown or rage, which caused him to lose consciousness and made him “incognizant of the fired bullets."

In Saudi Arabia, the legal treatment of domestic violence against women is surprising as well. Ironically enough, battered women must be accompanied by a guardian in order to file a complaint in court. What if their guardians were the ones beating them? In many cases, victims are handed back over to their alleged abusers after their complaint is dismissed.

To those calling for freedom, democracy and development while also justifying the marginalization of women, here is a quote from the Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland: "The award has been granted to Tawakkul Karman [an activist part of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, which defends the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology] for her peaceful struggle to protect women and grant them their rights. Democracy, durable world peace and social development at all levels can never be achieved unless gender equality is reached.”

Found in: women's rights, arab spring, arab

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