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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Ongoing Struggles for Women’s Rights in Libya and Egypt

by Isobel Coleman
March 8, 2013

A woman shouts slogans against Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and members of the Brotherhood during a march against sexual harassment and violence against women in Cairo on February 6, 2013 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A woman shouts slogans against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood during a march against sexual harassment and violence against women in Cairo on February 6, 2013 (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).


This week at the Council on Foreign Relations, I hosted two women’s rights leaders visiting New York from Libya and Egypt for the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The two leaders, Zahra Langhi and Fatemah Kafaghy, are participating in the CSW as part of a delegation from Karama, a nonprofit that aims to empower Arab women leaders.

As transitioning countries across the Middle East struggle with the big-picture question of the relationship between Islam and politics, Karama’s work is more important than ever. The rise of Islamist governments raises concerns about the integration of human rights generally, and women’s rights in particular, in the reconstituted legal systems of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Conservative religious voices are calling for rollbacks in women’s rights on religious grounds, while others seek to reconcile a modern role for women with sharia.

Zahra Langhi, a co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace—an advocacy group—has played an important role in ensuring women’s political representation in Libya’s new parliament. She led the organization’s successful lobbying effort to implement a zippered list, a system that alternates the names of male and female candidates on political parties’ electoral lists, which resulted in women gaining 17 percent of the country’s National Assembly seats. Langhi first learned about the potential of zippered lists to boost women’s representation through her work with Karama—an example of civil society and information-sharing at its best. Langhi is now focused on ensuring that women’s voices are heard during the process of drafting the Libyan constitution.

In Egypt, Fatemah Kafaghy is well aware of the risks women face in losing ground on basic rights and expressed concern about the lack of clearer protections for women’s rights in the country’s new constitution. The battle over women’s rights—and human rights more broadly—is fiercely contested not only between secularists and Islamists, but among Islamists themselves. Kafaghy noted the role of the prominent and influential Al-Azhar University in the ongoing debates on women’s role in society. Egyptians often look to Al-Azhar, the institute of Islamic learning in Egypt, for guidance; its scholars are currently working on a document to reaffirm women’s rights in the context of Islamic law. Though the document was supposed to be published in November, it is still in the drafting stages; a group of female leaders recently met with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar to provide their input and revise the document. It is currently under review by both Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Committee and High Committee of Scholars.

Kafaghy said that while she agrees with 75 percent of what she’s seen of the Al-Azhar document, she was concerned by language that casts women as “complementary” to men (this issue of “complementarity” was the cause for uproar in Tunisia in August). The most recent summary of the Al-Azhar Document on Women’s Rights (Arabic) currently comprises seven main points, which address equal political and economic rights, the right to inherit and manage money independently, the ability to divorce (phrased as the ability to exit a marriage contract), among other things. It acknowledges the reality that many women must work but does not state that women’s employment is an unequivocal right. Specifically, it says that working is an honorable way to make a living and comports with Islam, but that employment must be conducive to the situation of the spouses, the family, and Islamic customs—a point that will undoubtedly lend itself to problems of interpretation. Similarly, the document notes the historic precedent of women participating in public life, although in qualified language. However, the draft document explicitly addresses sexual violence and violence against women, stating that under Islam, it is the responsibility of the individual and the society to protect the inviolability of a person’s body.

For better or for worse, the reality is that women’s rights will be argued on religious grounds in the transitioning democracies of the Middle East, given the political influence of Islamist parties. This is the argument of my book Paradise Beneath Her Feet, which was recently released in an updated paperback version. The efforts of women like Langhi and Kafaghy to harness the support of moderate religious leaders will undoubtedly be important to the sustainability of their efforts to expand opportunities for women.

Thanks to my research associate, Thalia Beaty, for providing the Arabic translations.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Rashmee Roshan Lall

    One can only imagine what the US Department of State is thinking (if anything at all) when it comes up with its final list of the right girls to receive gongs. The gong in question is the International Women of Courage Award, which “annually recognizes women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women’s rights and empowerment, often at great personal risk.” The State Department has honoured 67 women from 45 countries from 2007.

    It did so again today, International Women’s Day.

    How do they decide who to dignify with their appreciation? How do they decide where to focus? Does some bod at the State Department get out a map of the mad, bad and dangerously bolshie countries in the world? Or a map of the countries next to the mad, bad and dangerously bolshie? Or do they just think of the all clichés current in the last year; or perhaps all the stories that became CNN Breaking News (which is pretty much every story)?

    How else to explain the posthumous award for “Nirbhaya”, as my former employer, The Times of India, christened the Delhi rape victim; Afghanistan’s Malalai Bahaduri, Afghanistan; Samira Ibrahim, Egypt; Julieta Castellanos, Honduras; Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin, Nigeria; Elena Milashina, Russia; Fartuun Adan, Somalia; Tsering Woeser, Tibetan author in China; Razan Zeitunah, Syria and Ta Phong Tan, Vietnam?

    Clearly, the only “women of courage” worth noting (if you go by the State Department list) are those in the developing world, the emerging economies, post-Soviet Russia, post-invasion Afghanistan, unquiet Egypt and the wilds of Africa. Are there none in the ‘First World’, in the UK, Europe, the US even?

  • Posted by Mariam

    Rubbish. I went to Libya for the anniversary of the revolution. It was last year I found woman trying for jobs in the parliament. woman in Libya have freedom and are not ristricted to doing anything.

  • Posted by Rob. L. Townsend

    Institutional efforts, like writing women’s rights into new constitutions and imaginative solutions for bumping up female parliamentary numbers, are surely important for progress . . . and the failure or absence of such efforts can undoubtedly impede female empowerment. But no such empowerment can become entrenched without deep societal change . . . that is, change outside the wealthy minority in which liberal ideals have long been accepted (if not always practiced). As you say, women’s rights will be argued on religious grounds; this is inevitable, since the democratization of the political process has brought so many relatively conservative (and religious) new entrants into the political sphere. But with the concurrent democratization of communication, illiberal conservatism and its hierarchically-structured society are rapidly being overcome by a different ethos . . . one of leveling self-empowerment. It will take time – and things rarely move in a straight line – but this new ethos will inevitably permeate all levels of society; religion will be forced to adapt or become irrelevant. Once again, this glass is half-full. But kudos to Langhi, Kafaghy, and others like them – they *do* have a heck of a lot of “courage”.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thanks for your comment. You might be interested in one of Afghanistan’s female parliament members, Fawzia Koofi: You might also be interested in my book Paradise Beneath Her Feet, which deals exactly with your point about women’s rights being argued on religious grounds:

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