. (Arab) Woman's Hour? | Ceasefire Magazine

(Arab) Woman’s Hour? North African Dispatches

In his latest column, Kateb Salim argues the Arab Spring could present a perfect opportunity for women across the Arab world to achieve a long-overdue breakthrough in their fight for equality.

New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 10:38 - 7 Comments



The Arab Spring represents a remarkable opportunity for Arab women to take back their rightful place in their own societies as equals. Though in essence most of the uprisings have not had any particularly female-oriented agenda underlying them, women should use this opportunity to challenge the status-quo and bring forward the idea that their emancipation is an essential factor behind any society’s development and well-being.

The MENA region’s economy, society and politics continue to be monopolised by men (of all ages and social backgrounds) who look down on female leadership and participation disdainfully. From society’s building block ( the family home) upwards, women face an uphill struggle to feel safe and respected as equal citizens in their own nations. Conservative Arab elites should face reality sooner or later: their societies will never be able to move forward so long as women continue to be treated as second-hand citizens under the tutelage of men.

Tunisia offers the best example of what adequate legislation should look like. Its long march towards total legal equality can and should be the model that other Arab nations in the region need to adopt. Its experience also provides policy makers and civil society activists with valuable lessons as to the downfalls of wanting too much too soon or moving too slowly in an effort to please everyone.

Tunisia is currently the only North African country with substantial equal rights for men and women. It boasts legislation from 1956 entirely prohibiting polygamy, giving women equal status as head of family (thereby rejecting the idea that a women has to obey her husband or her in-laws) and eliminating the right afforded to men to unilaterally divorce their wives. Women in Tunisia are even afforded the right to abortion which is a laudable and one-of-a-kind step forward in the region. One can only hope that Ennahda’s ( Tunisian Islamic party) emphatic rise to power in recent elections will not put an end to such outstanding progress.

When Arab women are not facing the condescension of the patriarchal system, they must also face similar treatment from conservative female voices. Just this week, one of Ennahda’s up and coming stars Souad Abderrahim, a newly elected MP for the capital Tunis, equated all single mothers to ‘immoral sinners’ whose very existence brings shame unto Tunisian society. Reprimandable comments to say the least. Abderrahim’s comments are nothing more than an indiscriminate attack on a category of women already vulnerable to an entire society’s contempt.

In neighbouring Algeria, Parliament recently overturned proposed government legislation to afford Algerian women a timid (very timid) 20-40% quota representation in the country’s parliament. Instead, they offered bland, makeshift legislation smothered in loopholes to avoid dealing with the underlying issue. The country’s leading female politician, Louisa Hanoune, runner-up in Algeria’s last presidential elections, fell victim to hackers who covered her political party’s website with messages calling for her to return to her rightful place: her kitchen.

Why not have a solid 50% female representation in Parliament and within political formations themselves? Why is it so difficult to envisage a 50-50% parity in male-female ministers in government? Despite the gradualists’ claims that Arab society is not ready for such bold measures, who better than the state to take a lead on these issues? The cliche has it that when there is a will there is a way! Sadly, there is currently no political will to see such equality exist.

Similar stories emanate from Egypt. Despite some symbolic advances afforded to women, your rights as a woman depend to a large extent on which social class you hail from. Women in Cairo’s elite are less likely to face the overwhelming burden of the conservative patriarchal society than women from inner Egypt or the slums of the country’s capital.

Egyptian women face the remarkably pervasive (no pun intended) and ever present scourge of sexual harassment. No woman in Cairo (or any of Egypt’s major cities for that matter) can honestly say she has not once felt the daily humiliation that comes from being harassed morally and/or physically walking down the streets or on public transportation. Such outrageous behaviour towards women does not limit itself to Egypt but is symptomatic of a culture that objectifies women and holds them responsible for the condemnable actions of their harassers.

Rather than hold rapists and molesters accountable, our societies reflexively blame women for supposedly dressing inappropriately or bringing shame to their families by speaking out against their ill-treatment. I certainly would not want my kids to grow up in a society where they should have to ponder whether or not what they are wearing is likely to predict what happens to them out on the street . Would you?

Thankfully, Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab decided to break the taboo , which virtually exists in all Arab countries, and speak out . His movie ‘678’ powerfully echoes the destiny of three Egyptian women from varying backgrounds who decide to fight back against such oppression.

Arab Women need to feel secure in their own streets, in their work places and in their homes. In order to do this, only bold and severe legislation protecting all women seeking refuge and safety in the state’s laws, will bring about major change. In the poverty stricken areas of North Africa’s major agglomerations, conservatism of the worst possible kind has been left to fester to avoid rustling feathers.If nothing is done to overturn such developments, the uprisings of the Arab Spring are at a risk of becoming new oppressions replacing older ones.

Kateb Salim is a writer and commentator on the Maghreb.


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Nov 16, 2011 14:26

Great article! Thanks for highlighting the significance of the women’s movement. Most Western countries do no stipulate (or achieve) anything like 50% representation of women in parliaments, but that is no reason why the Arab world shouldn’t do it.

Nov 16, 2011 18:47

The writer shows his ignorance of women’s history in the Arab world in particular and Muslim world at large. If nudity is not the writer’s standad of women emancipation – then women in the Muslim world have far better rights than in the women in the western countries. In Muslim world more women can be found in politics, education, religious studies and business than in the non-Muslim world.

Tunisia is not a model Muslim or Arab stste. It is ruled by a secular fascist elite minority whose loyalties are to the West than to Tunisian majority. The writer could have picked Turkey as a better example for his anti-Arab rant. Turkey is the most economically solid country among the 57-Muslim nation-states, it also had a woman prime minister in the past. Something which the US and most of EU countries have not given the right to its female population.

When it comes to women enlightenment – Iran beats most of the western and Arab nations. Iranian Majlis (parliament) has the highest numbers of women MPs (18%) plus one Vice-president and three cabinet ministers in Ahmadinejad’s government. There are over one dozen women universities and the college education among the female is 79% as compared to 77% among men.


Nov 16, 2011 22:57

Just a precision, in Algeria, Louiza Hanoune was AGAINST the project to increase participation of women in parliament. The reason is probably jealousy and fear of losing her status as Algeria’s only significant female politician actor. I also find astonishing that the author would consider 20-40% participation as very timid!
That’s a standard that 95% of western democracies have not reached yet! And they’ve been working on it for centuries.
After everything has been said and done legislation in all most north african countries is way ahead of what is being practiced in the street. Often, the legislator is faced with a population which is indoctrinated by fanatic imams every friday… let’s remove that hurdle and then we can talk about new laws,…

Nov 17, 2011 1:21

Rehmat: Curse those damn secular fascists and their freedom of choice…

I stopped reading when I got to this bit though: ” In Muslim world more women can be found in politics, education, religious studies and business than in the non-Muslim world.” followed by “When it comes to women enlightenment – Iran beats most of the western and Arab nations.” This is indefensible from any point of view, and here you show your ignorance of the poignant social realities existing in the Arab world and the Muslim world at large.

Nov 17, 2011 1:26

The writer is clearly not anti- arab because if he was he probably would not have specialized in North African journalism. That just seems like a long way to go to satisfy a grudge against a people. But that’s just me. To Rehmet, I would like to specify that the writer did not request that women be able to walk around nude but to be able to dress as they like without being severely harassed when they leave their homes. And Turkey would have been a great example but last time I checked Turkey wasn’t part of the Arab Spring so that would not have been relevant to the article now would it.

uncle merzouk
Nov 17, 2011 1:45

just because women in iran can read better than men that don’t mean anything… except maybe that iranian mandem are slow readers that chose to base their entire political system on a single interpretation of a single book written a loong looong time ago (albeit by a divine being if you choose to believe so)…. and don’t give me nothing about the government of ahmadinajad… that man has been locked in a power struggle (and loosing it) with the supreme council for the last year or so…. when a woman sits at that council then i will give Iran some credit..

Nov 17, 2011 15:55

Rehmat,the pourcentage of women in the Iranian parliament is a big show that doesn’t reflect the reality of women in this country ;this is just for external use;
I don’t think that a wrter is anti arab or muslim in the opposite he would like to see this part of the world facing its real problems and finding lasting solutions .
finaly it is true that Islam is a religion that gave women many rights unfortunatly it is because of muslim like you that does not tolerate others opinions that the muslims are far behind;

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