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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Women’s Security in the Middle East and North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
March 12, 2013

A woman holds a placard during a protest to mark International Women's Day in downtown Sanaa, Yemen March 8, 2013. The placard reads "Not with weapons we build the country." (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters). A woman holds a placard during a protest to mark International Women's Day in downtown Sanaa, Yemen on March 8, 2013. The placard reads "Not with weapons we build the country." (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).


“It is time for an uprising of women in the Arab world,” writes Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW News in Lebanon in the second annual publication to mark International Women’s Day by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

Last year, Haleh Esfandiari, the program’s director, asked a diverse group of women from business, politics, the media, and civil society to assess how women have fared in the wake of the Arab uprisings. This year, the question got straight to the point: what are the challenges to women’s security in the MENA region?

The forty responses from Indonesia to Morocco catalog a host of concerns: eroding legal rights for women, economic vulnerability, rises in trafficking, and prostitution out of desperation. They also speak to a worrisome uptick in targeted violence against women–violence intended to scare women out of public spaces, out of politics, and back into the home. Over a third of the respondents named rape specifically as either a tool of war or intimidation, and another third denounced the rising number of mass sexual assault on women. In the words of Yassmine El Sayed Hani of the Egyptian paper, Al Akbar, these public attacks are meant “to deter” opponents of the regime–both men and women–from mobilizing.

Yet women are mobilizing. Refusing to be intimidated and deterred, activists–male and female–are forming groups to expose injustice, harness national and international outrage, claw back public space for women, and to fight for reforms.

Many of the respondents also emphasized the need to recognize that Syrian women, in particular, are living in the midst of a brutal war. Honey Al Sayed of Syria writes that displaced women, many of whom have lost their male relatives, are left as the sole breadwinners without physical shelter or social networks, and “need to be recognized and mentored within their society and the international community.”

This overriding call to recognize the impact of war and political instability on women runs through the responses. Wajeeha Al Baharna, a women’s rights activist in Bahrain, writes, “We find that women in wars and conflicts are the first to be affected, and during times of prosperity and development, they are the last to benefit.” Safia Taleb Al Souhail, a member of parliament in Iraq, laments the utter lack of commitment by the country’s leaders to promote gender equality in the context of security reform. She goes on to say, “The increase of women’s seats in parliaments alone, despite all of its importance, is not sufficient in an emerging democracy. Women must be seen in the society as ruling and leading actors…” Democracy is more than elections, and women’s security is a prerequisite. This is a particularly salient lesson for women’s rights activists in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

Many also point to the rising challenge of political Islam to women’s legal rights and equal citizenship. Especially in Saudi Arabia, women face glaring obstacles to their full participation in public life. A doctoral candidate in health services research, Hala Al Dosari, puts it simply, “Segregation is a potential barrier to the meaningful engagement of women in shared decision making.”

Dr. Esfandiari writes in her introduction that the countries of North Africa should look to Iran as a warning of what happens when women’s rights are defined under Islamic law. She says it “has meant the institutionalization of unequal status.” Fatima Sbaity Kassem, former director of the UN-ESCWA Center for Women in Lebanon, concurs saying, “With uncertainties looming large, I wonder whether public Islam will ever lead to Arab democratization as public Christianity did for the West; and while celebrating 2013 International Women’s Day, will an Arab women’s spring ever dawn?”

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