This year’s Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian regimes included many prominent women: There was a Tunisian blogger who was among the first to alert the world to the country’s growing turmoil. And there were demonstrators, journalists, bloggers and tweeters in Egypt who forced the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
But since those inspiring days, the news from this region has painted a picture of a democratic revolution only partly finished. The problem with leaving a task unfinished is that there’s the danger of stalling ― or leaving an opening for someone worse.
In recent days, an Egyptian general admitted that his troops conducted “virginity checks” of female protesters ― a barbaric and unnecessary humiliation by the military, which now seems like a poor caretaker of power as Egypt prepares its new constitution.
But the virgin tests are only the most notorious of the setbacks for the women of the Arab Spring. Backsliding in this part of the world is particularly frightening, given its history and its cast of brutes who want a return to Islamic law. It would be tragic for another country whose women helped make revolution ― like Iran in 1979 or Algeria in 1962 ― to reverse course to subjugate them to a fundamentalist regime.
In Egypt especially, where the United States intervened directly by calling for Mubarak to quit, we have a moral obligation to push for results that we can support, not democracy and equality for only half the people.
Signs of anti-woman sentiment have been surfacing. One Tunisian feminist, Raja bin Salama, called for the country’s new laws to be based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document asserts that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, that we are endowed with reason and conscience, and that we should act toward one another in a spirit of kinship.
For endorsing such outrageous ideas, the head of the Tunisian Islamist party denounced bin Salama and threatened to hang her in a public square. Rashid al-Ghannouchi was living in exile when he made his threat, but has since returned to Tunisia.
In Egypt, the eight-member committee to redraft the constitution excluded women altogether. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights is protesting the exclusion, and 102 other Egyptian women’s organizations have signed on in sympathy.
Western women have a hard time comprehending societies where women can be trained as lawyers, surgeons or computer scientists ― and yet be told whom to marry, or be arrested after sitting at a coffee shop with an unrelated man. For us, economic gains have resulted in many other freedoms, although unfinished revolutions await here as well.
In Saudi Arabia ― which has felt the aftershocks of its neighbors’ struggles toward democracy ― a 32-year-old woman was arrested last month after uploading a YouTube video of herself driving a car, since Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive. Her peaceful protest is reminiscent of Rosa Parks’ choice of a seat at the front of the bus.
What can we do to help? We can keep these issues in the forefront by talking, blogging, tweeting, reading. A group of Saudi women is petitioning Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to help change the driving law. International diplomatic pressure can and should play a role.
Many Americans oppose our involvement in the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether the new regimes will be an improvement. We should target our involvement to be sure they are.
By Anne Michaud
Anne Michaud writes a column for Newsday and is a member of its editorial board. ― Ed.