What’s Next for Women and the Arab Spring

Revolutions have consequences.

Since the beginning of the year, we’ve seen longstanding and repressive regimes fall in North Africa, and continuing protests across the Middle East and Gulf. In real time, we are watching people struggle with how to structure new institutions, build democratic governments and rebuild (or build) a non-governmental civil society. They are all fighting to shape new futures.

It’s both exciting, and a bit scary to watch. But a key question in each country is how much space there will be for women to participate fully in each of these nascent democracies. In many cases, women were critical actors in these revolutions and fought side by side with men. Many were bloggers; activists; leaders and logistics experts. Reports from Libya are that on Friday, September 3, Martyrs’ Square was filled for part of the day with only women to celebrate the fall of Colonel Gaddafi and their role in that battle.

Women bring different life experiences and perspectives to the policy debate, and it is important to ensure that those views are part and parcel of the public discussions. Women are the backbones of societies, even when they aren’t publicly acknowledged. Women make sure communities function; they run businesses, large and small; they provide the agricultural work that keeps families going. It is this experience, as well as the experience of living life as a woman, subject to harassment and violence and unequal treatment, that must be part of building safer, more stable societies.

Research shows that women’s participation helps build stronger businesses and public institutions. We need more women in politics to make sure we make the best policy decisions we can and build stable and transparent societies. A study of legislative actions in countries belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that the greater the number of women in a country’s parliament, the more that country spends on education as percentage of GDP and per capita. In India, local councils headed by women paid more attention to critical water and sanitation issues. Business co-ops formed by women usually thrive and support families and communities.

All of these countries face a long road ahead. Throughout the region, there are opportunities for women to be part of institutions that will shape legal frameworks for decades to come.

In Egypt, parliamentary elections are tentatively set for October 2011, and presidential elections for later in the fall. These upcoming elections will give us clues about the emerging political landscape and to the level of involvement and influence women will have as candidates and voters. Clearly, it was disappointing that there were no women included in the 63 person group drafting the package of constitutional amendments which were passed on March 19, 2011 with 77% of the vote. The amendments contained no reference to equality for women, but did not alter the quota for women’s participation in Parliament’s lower chamber, currently set as 64 of 444 seats.

Tunisia will also hold elections for the Constituent Assembly in October 2011. Tunisia has taken the lead by passing a law that there be an equal number of men and women candidates on the lists for Constituent Assembly, and that women and men appear alternatively on the lists. This latter requirement is critical to maximizing the number of women who will actually get elected. According to a recent Freedom House report, “Women have played a visible role in Tunisian society, representing 37% of the working population, 56% of students, 24% of magistrates and 22% of the executive positions in the Tunisian civil service.” The previous parliament, dissolved after the fall of Ben Ali regime, had the most women in the region. This Constituent Assembly will frame how Tunisian will govern itself into the future and how women will fare in that future.

In Libya, as the search for Colonel Gaddafi continues, the National Transition Council (NTC) is continuing its work to shape the new government. The NTC is in the process expanding and adding new members and new voices.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the involvement of women everywhere decisions are made, whether that is electing women to office at the local or national level or involving women in decision making about how camps are run or resources are distributed. This is where the rubber meets the road for so many and where the reality of women’s lives and challenges becomes painfully important.


Photo Credit: AP

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