What Will Uprisings Mean For Women's Rights In The Arab World?

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Women have been at the forefront of the pro-democracy demonstrations sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. But will efforts at reform and revolution, lead to increased legal rights and a greater role for women in politics in Arab nations? In conjunction with the launch of a new UN agency called UN Women, and ahead of the start of Women's History Month tomorrow, host Michel Martin puts that question to two women have made history: Mahnaz Afkhami, former Women's Affairs Minister in pre-revolutionary Iran, and Lina Abou-Habib, a prominent Arab feminist from Lebanon.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We'll get the dish on who wore what down Oscar's red carpet last night and we'll talk about which trends from that fashion walk might make it into the stores for next season. That's just ahead.

But first, women's rights in the evolving Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

MARTIN: That is the sound of women protesters in Cairo during the height of the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt. Women have taken an active role on the protests that have swept across the region. But will efforts at reform and revolution lead to increased legal rights and a greater role for women in the political sphere?

A number of groups in the region and in the U.S. want to see that women's rights are not put on the back burner in the midst of all these history-making changes. In conjunction with the launch of a new U.N. agency called U.N. Women, and just ahead of Women's History Month, which starts tomorrow, we decided to call upon two women who have already made history.

Mahnaz Afkhami is the former minister of women's affairs of Iran, dating back to the days of the shah. She now heads the group, Women's Learning Partnership. That's an initiative that trains women on advocacy and political participation.

Also with us, Lina Abou-Habib, a prominent Arab feminist from Lebanon. She works on campaigns to reform the legal rights for women and countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. And they're both in New York for the U.N. Women's event. And ladies, thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. MAHNAZ AFKHAMI (President, Women's Learning Partnership): Thank you, Michel.

Ms. LINA ABOU-HABIB (Arab Feminist): Thank you.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you, first of all, how you see these protests sweeping the region and whether you think in any way they have already advanced the cause of women. And, Mahnaz, why don't you start?

Ms. AFKHAMI: Well, I have, of course, the memory of the Islamic revolution in Iran and it makes me cautious, but of course highly optimistic. The very fact that women are out there, that they're asking for democracy, for human rights and bravely engaging in the processes is very promising and very important. But we want to make sure that this process, especially during the transition period, includes the voices of women and that they are not short-changed as they were in the Iranian revolution.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that. I want to just ask Lina to respond briefly and then, Mahnaz, I want to ask you your perspective on your concern that women can actually lose ground in the face of these kinds of circumstances. But let's hear from Lina.

Ms. ABOU-HABIB: Yes. I think it's really refreshing to have so many young people actually saying enough and we want changes. It's refreshing for us to see the chanting that you aired just now. You could clearly hear the voices of women. And they were saying, by the way, Muslims and Christians, we are all Egyptians, which was one of the slogans which were put forward by women in an effort, actually, to unite forces for change.

Now, what will become with women after the dust has settled and after the uprising actually has reached its objective for change is actually of course an issue of concern. And this is why I think with our colleagues in Egypt and in the region, we're remaining really vigilant in terms of mobilizing women, empowering women to take part in the aftermath of this uprising.

MARTIN: Mahnaz, let's go back to your experience. And I'll just point out that you were the first minister of women's affairs in Iran under the shah. That was the first position of its kind in the region. And I understand that you actually left the country in 1978 to launch two U.N. agencies related to women's rights that were supposed to have been housed in Tehran. But then you got a call saying, don't come back. Your life is in danger. And it is, I think, commonly understood that, in terms of the legal rights for women that you are seeking, that there's actually been many steps backward since then.

So could you talk a little bit about why you think there's a potential for steps backward in the face of what we're seeing now?

Ms. AFKHAMI: The problem is similar to what we had in Iran and that is that because of this atmosphere in which - in recent decades - free political participation has been absent in most of the countries of the Middle East. There are very few strong civic organizations that are inclusive of women who are particularly helping people to learn about the process of democracy.

So we really have to expand the work that we are all doing in our partnership and with other feminist groups to make sure that people, in effect, learn the process of democracy. The aspiration is there, the wish for it is there, but the practice of the actual process needs to be emphasized and learned.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Mahnaz Afkhami. That's who just heard. She's the former minister of women's affairs in pre-Revolutionary Iran. And Lina Abou-Habib is a prominent Arab feminist who's from Lebanon. We're talking about the role of women in the wave of protests across the Middle East and North Africa and what that could portend for the status of women in these countries.

Lina, what are some of the advances that you're most interested in around the region? Could you just give us an example?

Ms. ABOU-HABIB: I think what we're working for, what we're aiming at and what we hope to see happen as soon as possible is a reform of the family laws. I think since forced independence, all our governments have maintained very, very strongly religious family laws, which maintained women as second-class citizens with no direct access to the state and as total independence on their, you know, on male members of their families, with their husbands or brothers and so on.

And I think without a radical reform of family laws all throughout the Arab region, and some countries have already started on this (unintelligible) our colleagues in Morocco. This is the necessary condition for starting in a process that will ensure equality for women and men in the Arab regions. So that's for one.

MARTIN: For an example, you're saying that in the event of divorce, for example, women tend to lose all rights to their children. Is that an example of what you're talking about?

Ms. ABOU-HABIB: The child custody age is determined by the religious court. In most of these religious, if not all of them, we tend to favor fathers no matter what the circumstances are. And so, for instance, women will tend to lose custody of their children. Can you imagine children are taken away from their mothers at the age of two in some denominations? And there is really no recourse.

This, of course, has changed slightly in the case of Morocco, which has gone through quite a progressive reform of its family roles. But then is has come about after something, like, 20 years of struggle.

Ms. AFKHAMI: You know what, Michel, just to add to what Lina was saying, family laws which include almost everything having to do with the place of women from the right to travel, the right to hold a job, the right to guardianship of children, everything that really defines you as a free person. This, for instance, in Iran, prior to the revolution, had become a very reasonably advanced law.

But right after the revolution, the first thing that the ayatollah did was annul the family law. And so, this is just to say that it's the central issue of conservativism and fundamentalism is the place of women in society. And so it's a central demand of women almost everywhere in Muslim majority countries.

MARTIN: So I need to ask what may be a delicate question. Many scholars have told us the status of women originally in Islam was considered very progressive. That it is a religion that values women's rights enshrined to certain sort of status for women and dignity for women. And yet we find that so much of your work involved confronting essentially the religion and religious influence in these countries. And I'd like to ask you, how do you explain this - what seems like a contradiction?

Ms. AFKHAMI: Islam is really no different from any of the other religions, especially the Abrahamic religions. They all come from the same small geographic area. They all have very positive things about justice and respect for all. And they all have practices which have been developed in different ways and can be an impediment in the way of democracy and human rights.

So the idea of this Islamic exceptionalism, it's not doing us very much help. What we need is just a historical process of developing consciousness of the rights of the individual and the rights of women. And, you know, this is something that has had to happen in all of the different religious contexts, in all of the different societies. We can just look back to the American Constitution: all men are created equal.

It's something that needs to develop through consciousness of rights of individuals and through the process of working together for a more inclusive society and I think that the new generation is really going to have a different outlook and the new possibilities for exchange of experience and exchange of knowledge is astounding.

And I think the world that we're going to be witnessing is going to be quite different than the world that we have experienced in the past. And that's what makes me very optimistic.

MARTIN: Mahnaz Afkhami is the former minister of women's affairs in Iran. She now heads a group called Women's Learning Partnership, which trains women on advocacy and political participation. Lina Abou-Habib is a prominent feminist from Lebanon. She works on campaigns to reform legal rights for women in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They were both kind enough to join us in our studios in New York. Ladies, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. AFKHAMI: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. ABOU-HABIB: Thank you, Michel.

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