Arab Women Rising: An Uncertain Future

2011 was a year of protest across the Middle East and North Africa. Amid each uprising, women were visible, fighting not just for the rights of their country, but often for rights of their own. Host Audie Cornish talks with Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations about women in the Arab uprising and their role going forward.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

2011 was a year of protests across the Middle East and North Africa. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt ousted long-ruling dictatorships and each of those countries is now in the process of rebuilding their government. During the protests and in the weeks and months after each uprising, women were visible, fighting not just for the rights of their country but in many cases for rights of their own. But amid the recent images of an Egyptian woman stripped down to her bra and beaten by military police in Tahrir Square, there is some anxiety that the overthrow of these governments may not be all good news for women. Isabel Coleman is the director of the women and foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She joins us from New York. Welcome, Isabel.

ISABEL COLEMAN: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, you recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine entitled "Is Arab Spring Bad for Women?" That raises questions about whether women were better off before the ouster of some of these dictators. Do you believe they were?

COLEMAN: Well, it - look, it's a provocative headline, which I'm all for provocative headlines. Personally, I think that men and women are better off under freer societies. But it does raise some interesting issues about women's rights because democracy in that part of the world, as we've already seen, is bringing to the forefront Islamic parties. And many of these Islamic parties do have very conservative notions about women and their role in society. And it will create complications for women and could, in some case, roll back rights that women already enjoy.

CORNISH: Of course, each country's situation is unique. And are there instances where women are faring better than their Arab counterparts elsewhere; and why is that?

COLEMAN: Well, Tunisia has always been at the forefront of women and women's rights in the Arab world. Ennahda, which is the leading Islamist party, won a plurality of votes and has earned the right to form a government. But they've been very careful to acknowledge that women's rights are a fact of life in Tunisia. It's been part of the fabric of society for decades in that country. Tunisia was the first country in 1956 to grant women many rights that women in the West didn't even have at that time. You saw women have access to even abortion in Tunisia years before they had legal access to that in other countries in the West. And although there are conservative elements within Ennahda and, of course, within other Islamist parties in Tunisia that would like to see, I think, some of the existing laws that are to the benefit of women rolled back in that country, Ennahda itself has say we're not going to do that. We're not going to change the laws as they relate to women.

CORNISH: So, how is that different from, say, an Egypt where in the first round of elections you do see strong performance from Islamist parties who are eyeing a rollback in some ways for women's rights?

COLEMAN: In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has got the majority of the votes among Islamist parties that got the most votes. But the next in line is Al Nour, which is a Salafi party, which is very, very conservative. They were required to have women on their party lists, but they spoke out against that and said it's against Islam for women to run for office. They did field female candidates because they were required to do so, but the women who ran on their party lists didn't even show their face. They replaced their photographs with a picture of a flower in most cases.

CORNISH: One thing that interests me about your article is you pointed out this idea that there has been a complex relationship between sort of pro-women's movements in countries like Egypt and the previous regimes.

COLEMAN: Well, that's another complicated factor. These previous, you know, deeply-discredited illegitimate regimes from before - Ben Ali in Tunisia; Mubarak in Egypt - that the women's rights agenda was co-opted by those regimes and was closely associated with the first ladies in both of these countries. And today, you know, you see a bit of a backlash against that. In Egypt, you have groups claiming that the laws that are in place that are to the benefit of women today that deal with personal status laws - things like marriage, divorce, custody, things that touch people's everyday lives - you've heard people saying that they need to be rolled back, need to be changed because they are, quote, "Suzanne Mubarak's laws" and therefore illegitimate.

CORNISH: Isabel, many may think that this is the first time in history that women are so publicly standing up for their rights in the region. But, of course, there's a long history of women fighting for political freedoms, and can you talk about how this revolution and the role for women in this revolution differs from the Arab feminists of the past?

COLEMAN: Women marched in Tahrir Square back in 1919, 1920 against the British. They were very instrumental in bringing out, you know, the crowds against the British. And what is different today though, I think, is you see much more of a mass mobilization of women. You have much higher levels of education and engagement of women. Across the region now, women make up a majority of college graduates. And in some countries, it's not by a small amount, it's by a large amount. In Libya, for example, women almost double the number of men at the university level. It's a very different situation than 100 years ago where you had just a small elite group of women who were out protesting and being activists. You know, today, you see it up and down throughout society. And women are engaged both physically - marching in the streets, they're engaged as bloggers, they're engaged in all different ways in the unrest that's going on. And it's a genie that I don't think can be put back in that bottle.

CORNISH: Isabel Coleman. She's with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Paradise beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East." Isabel, thanks so much for being with us.

COLEMAN: Thank you for having me.

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