Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Female Leaders in North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
October 26, 2012

Moroccans attend a women's rights rally while holding placards reading "Stop abusing girls" in Rabat on February 20, 2012 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters).


Women have played an important role in spurring reform throughout the Middle East and North Africa. But as elections take place and constitutions are drafted, their rights are at risk of being sidelined.

This morning, I had the opportunity to host at the Council on Foreign Relations (audio available) two civil society leaders who are working to ensure that women’s rights have a central place in the new Middle East: Marianne Ibrahim from Egypt and Souad Slaoui from Morocco. They discussed initiatives in their home countries to empower women and girls, improve interfaith dialogues, and encourage positive policy changes to support human rights and international development.

Ibrahim and Slaoui are part of the Policy Advocates for Women’s Issues program, sponsored by Vital Voices and the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative. This program connects women leaders in the region and the world, underscoring the importance of national and international women’s networks for supporting those leading grassroots change.

In Morocco, Slaoui is part of an advocacy movement to raise awareness about the negative impact of child marriage. Despite the 2004 passage of the Moudawana (family code) law—which allows women to initiate divorce and sets the legal age of marriage at eighteen years of age—there exists a gap between the written law and practice. Indeed, Morocco’s Ministry of Justice estimates that instances of child marriage in fact rose from 30,000 in 2009 to 34,000 in 2011 despite the law. This was enabled, in large part, by Article 20 of the Moudawana, which allows judges to use their “judicial discretion” to allow minors to be married.

As a founding member of the Isis Center for Women and Development, Slaoui worked in partnership with other local civil society organizations to collect data on child marriage and mobilize Moroccan policymakers supportive of changing the “status-quo of child marriage” in the country. By raising awareness among the general public about the detrimental, long-term consequences of child marriage, the campaign has also brought the issue to Morocco’s national parliament and submitted recommendations for reform to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Family and Solidarity.

In Egypt, Vital Voices is supporting the work of women’s rights activists during the drafting of Egypt’s constitution. The Egyptian Policy Advocates team (made up of male and female advocates, such as Marianne Ibrahim) has “developed, broadly disseminated, and pushed” for the integration of a women’s rights platform in the constitution.

With women only six of the one hundred members of the Egyptian constituent assembly, the group tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution, they are barely represented in that critical process. Debates continue among Egyptian religious conservatives and secular liberals about touchstone issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and women’s rights.

One controversial issue is female genital mutilation (FGM). Ibrahim noted that in May, the Ministry of Health was notified through its FGM hotline that a group of doctors associated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) were performing FGM in a tour of Minya, a southern governorate. FJP later denied that the doctors performed any operations, and it has said that the party conforms with Egyptian laws prohibiting FGM. Nonetheless, in discussions this summer, members of Egypt’s constituent assembly clashed over a prohibition against FGM in the constitution. An FJP member asserted that FGM should be legal to perform if a doctor is consulted and demanded that the West stay out of Egypt’s legislation.

In June, the Egyptian Policy Advocates team presented its list of fourteen demands for “female inclusion in decision-making roles” to Egypt’s constituent assembly. Demands include a 40 percent quota for women in the parliament and Shura Council; the activation of all articles of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); and a requirement for all Egyptian political parties to include a percentage of women; among others.

Given the resistance to women’s empowerment that remains across much of the Arab world, the work of leaders like Slaoui and Ibrahim is a difficult but critical struggle.

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  • Posted by Russell Traughber

    I wrote the childhood memoir of Jabonkah Sackey, and she suffer FGM at age eight deep in the Liberian bush at the hands of the Secret Society of the Gola tribe in the year 1956. She had kept quiet for 50 years, not even her grown children or her best friends knew. She is quiet no longer as she wants FGM to stop. She continues to suffer to this day at the age of 64, infections, embarrassment, denied life as sexual being, and the lasting emotional trauma.

    You can read her account in, Driving The Birds, available on Amazon

    Russell Traughber

    Author, Driving The Birds.

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