Feminism the first victim of Arab Spring protests

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Though women across the Middle East participated actively in the Arab Spring protests that began in late 2010, they remain second-class citizens, even where popular uprisings managed to topple autocratic regimes. Indeed, the Islamist governments now in power in several countries seem more determined than the despots to keep women out of politics.

In conducting interviews with women in the region, I am struck by their overall pessimism. They fear the loss of their rights. They see economic disintegration all around them, raising the possibility of a further increase in violence. More than once, I heard them express the view that things were better before the revolutions.

Female representation in parliaments and government cabinets after the Arab Spring has been lacking, and women activists worry that Islamist parties will implement reactionary policies that discriminate on the basis of gender. In Egypt, for example, the Freedom and Justice Party, which dominates the parliament, claims that a woman cannot become president.

In Morocco, while there were eight women in the previous cabinet, today there is only one in the Islamist-led government. In January, the Islamist-dominated parliament adopted a decree lowering the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 16, a major setback. Moroccan feminists have protested vigorously, but to no avail.

Unfortunately, conservative forces in the Arab world repeatedly turn against women when political unrest spreads. In Bahrain, several women protesters have been arrested and tortured. In Yemen, the authorities call on male relatives to “tame” their women. In Tunisia, the most Westernised of the Arab countries, women have been attacked at universities and schools, and are being forced to wear the hijab. A woman who was allegedly raped by two policemen in September 2012 was charged with public indecency.

These countries are at a crossroads. Women make up half of the Middle East’s population, and the Arab countries will not succeed unless women are fully integrated into political and economic life.

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2011, Yemeni political activist Tawakkol Karman, made the point clearly: “The solution to women’s issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together.”

• Moha Ennaji is professor of cultural and gender studies at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University and president of the International Institute for Languages and Cultures in Fez, Morocco.