Among the many uncertainties around recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen there is the crucial question of the rights of women in the aftermath. As Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl write in “The Arab Intifada and Women’s Rights“:
…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.
Unlike Saudi women, who are only beginning to resist infringement on personal liberties, their Tunisian counterparts are wholeheartedly rallying to protect their rights against a potential Islamist government. Their chief threat: Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahdha (Awakening) movement, who left Tunisia in the early 1990s after Ben Ali’s suppression of Islamists.
And while the Islamist movement is still officially banned, women in Tunisia are not taking any chances with their liberties. As Sabah Mahmoudi, a university lecturer warns, “We want to send an important message to the Islamists, especially those from the Ennahdha movement, that we are not ready to pull back on or abandon our rights.”
If only American feminists would take to the streets whenever they saw their reproductive rights being violated by the GOP.
In 1956, under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisian women saw their status improve dramatically: polygamy was banned, men could no longer unilaterally divorce their wives, and women gained the right to child custody rights after divorce. An added bonus: no woman is forced to wear the veil.
Compare that with Egypt, which has a much spottier human rights with regards to the womenfolk: FGM (female genital mutilation) was again made legal after its initial ban in 1997, then subsequently outlawed again in 2008 (largely due to First Lady Suzanne Mubarak’s efforts). According to Hudson and Leidl:
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.
Perhaps you’re aware of Yemen, that pinnacle of women’s rights, where more than twenty-five percent of girls are married before the age of fifteen. A perfect example is the case of Nujood Ali, married at eight and divorced at nine.
Our own First Lady Abigail Adams perhaps said it best more than 200 years ago: “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”