Over the past year, Arab women fought bravely for their dignity and freedom, capturing global attention with their courage. Last December, my Yemeni sister, Tawakkul Karman, became the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the higher principles she fought for through her democratic activity.
Launching the transitional process was relatively easy. In fact, Arab women across the region have understood that pursuing democracy can help them achieve long-suppressed rights, but at the same time can also highlight deep-rooted discriminatory practices. This may cause women’s conditions to relapse, especially in cases where their representation in new and emerging institutions is still, to a large extent, below the desired level. In many countries, new elites celebrated their newly found freedom of expression, obtained after a long struggle, by talking about reducing women's rights.
In Tunisia, the (running) parties have frustrated the interim government’s impressive efforts to achieve equality in the National Constituent Assembly. In fact, these parties have deliberately chosen not to put a sufficient number of women at the head of their electoral lists.
In Egypt, the quota that has been allocated for women in parliament since 2009 was abolished during the early transitional period. Now, women only hold 12 out of 508 parliamentary seats.
In Libya, the Interim National Council is composed of strictly men. Likewise, female political activists are harassed not only by the security forces but also by men opposed to their presence in public life. Conventional wisdom holds that the pursuit of democracy inevitably leads to the expansion of women's rights, but it seems that such an expansion will not be achieved in this case.
The Arab Human Development Report I, issued by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) a decade ago, said that for many years the Arab world has been suffering from large deficits in three areas: knowledge, freedom and women's empowerment. It suggested that these areas must not be addressed separately, but as a package.
On International Women's Day, we must enumerate the great achievements made by women across the world and in various areas of their lives. Women and girls currently enjoy better health and education than in eras past. Moreover, the productivity of working women has reached its highest levels ever, and brilliant female leaders have emerged in all areas. But we must extend a bridge to our sisters in the Arab region so that they do not lag behind.
The UNDP, where I serve as Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS), provides support at this critical stage by training female candidates interested in political activism in Tunisia. The RBAS also supports national dialogue in Egypt, provides counsel on the rule of law and human rights in Libya and supports dialogue and political transition in Yemen.
Today, we are approaching one of the most important landmarks on the road to democratic change in these four countries, where national bodies are holding meetings to initiate the development of new constitutions. While each transitional process has its own peculiarities, they all share the pivotal importance of developing a new constitution which embodies each community’s values in a legal framework.
In this regard, the entire international community must insist that the constitution-making processes be participatory, inclusive and in compliance with basic international conventions and agreements, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This convention, signed by most Arab states, calls on governments to ensure equality between men and women before the law and seeks liberation from gender discrimination. It also demands that women's rights and dignity be prioritized over any standards or practices, be they cultural or religious.
Some dogmatic groups that have recently come to power may argue otherwise. Some tend to say that the concept of women's rights is a Western-imposed value. They should be ignored and refuted. Others resort to analyzing the difference between "equity" and "equality.” However, there are countless ordinary people across the Arab world, male and female, who find that women's rights are fully compatible with the teachings of Islam and that they are an extension of its history. This history starts with the high position of power that the queens of ancient Egypt held, and ends with the progress that we are currently witnessing in education and professional and civil employment, as well as the legal safeguards that enable women to own assets, travel at will and live without fear of exposure to violence.
At this juncture, defenders of equality have to speak up. The UNDP and other United Nations specialized agencies offer support services for Arab communities through community consultations and insuring broad participation in constitutional development, while enabling the voices of the largest number of society sectors to be heard. They further aim to develop an awareness of basic governmental obligations in accordance with international law. This will provide new Arab political systems with a strong foundation . It will also contribute to the prosperity of civil-society institutions and will make real progress toward the full realization of women’s rights.
Throughout the region, men and women fought side by side with courage and determination in order to achieve social justice, dignity, transparency and inclusion. They fought to make their opinions heard on decisions that affect and shape their lives. However, the pace of their progress toward achieving these goals primarily depends on the progress they make toward women's empowerment.