SCOTT SIMON, Host:
Women have risked their lives on the front lines of the revolutions that have remade much of the Arab world - protesting, marching, blogging and tweeting, and sometimes dying. Many women are asking if this is leading them any closer to real equality with men. And some express concern that Islamist movements could gain strength and set back women's rights. Sheera Frenkel spoke with women throughout the region and has this report.
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SHEERA FRENKEL: At the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's port city of Alexandria, May Kamel is in the midst of a verbal confrontation. The 23-year-old, who calls herself a feminist activist, is arguing with Sobhi Saleh, a senior member of the Islamist group, on the topic of women's rights.
SOBHI SALEH: (Foreign language spoken)
FRENKEL: He tells her that in the new Egypt, she will find a devout religious life - one where she will wear traditional modest clothing and live according to values espoused in the Koran. She picks at her thin T-shirt with fingernails that she's painted jet black and says she is disappointed. Like women across the Arab world, Kamel is waiting to see how the changes sweeping the region will affect her.
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FRENKEL: Just a few months earlier Kamel joined protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
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FRENKEL: She says that the vision of men and women protesting together stood out as a pivotal moment in her mind.
MAY KAMEL: Well, I think the youth that were in Tahrir, you know, they're OK with the concept of women and men having equal rights.
FRENKEL: But in the months that followed, she says, the feminist honeymoon was lost. Most telling, says Kamel, the women who took part in the protests in Tahrir have been increasingly painted as vagrant or loose women in the Egyptian press.
The Arab Spring protests that swept through North Africa and the Middle East were quickly heralded as a new era for women in the region. Images of women marching alongside men in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan led to predictions that women's rights would also make huge strides forward. But just six months after those protests took off many women have lost that optimism.
In Egypt, Kamel pointed to a protest that took place on March 8th, International Women's Day. The female protesters were attacked by a group of men.
KAMEL: It got physically abusive after a while, like, the protest actually didn't last, like, for even, like, an hour. And it was just like just completely disgraceful and embarrassing.
FRENKEL: Some 1,300 miles west of Cairo lies the capital of Tunisia where the Arab upheaval began. In Tunis, Lina Ben Mhenni says she was saddened but not shocked at the attacks on the Women's Day protest in Egypt.
The 27-year-old, who blogs under the moniker A Tunisian Girl, met me at a trendy sidewalk cafe just a few yards from the spot where protesters gathered in early January to demand the fall of a regime. Ben Mhenni says that not everyone was happy about the co-ed protest movement. The good thing is that both men and women took part in this march. But there were groups who shout your place is in the kitchen, you don't have to ask for more rights.
FRENKEL: Women in Tunisia have long enjoyed more freedom than elsewhere in the region. It is a country where polygamy is banned, marriage is based on consent, and abortion is legal.
But Ben Mhenni and other Tunisian women fear those rights could be in jeopardy if Islamist parties gain power in the upcoming elections.
BLOGGER: Before January 14th we were asking for more rights, now we are trying to preserve the rights we already have.
FRENKEL: And, she says, rather than being heralded as part of the solution, women are being vilified as the source of corruption in the now overthrown regimes. Cartoons in Islamic newspapers depict wealthy, westernized women linked to crooked, opulent lifestyles. They point to Leila Trabelsi, the wife of ousted President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, as a case in point.
Ben Mhenni called it the Marie Antoinette affect - the vices of the Ben Ali regime were blamed in large part on his wife's bad influence. In Egypt, protesters pointed fingers at presidential wife Suzanne Mubarak's lavish lifestyle. And in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, protests took off after a letter from powerful tribal leaders targeted Queen Rania, as an example of Western decadence.
In Jordan's capital, Amman, journalist Leila Hammerney talked about the challenges facing young women activists across the region.
LEILA HAMMERNEY: It's going to be difficult from now on, but the whole idea is that we're going to fight back, capitalizing on all our experiences. We're going to keep to build more alliances among women.
FRENKEL: As she leaves her office, Hammerney steps over a newspaper with photos of the ongoing protests in Syria. An image of a young woman flashing a victory sign at Syrian soldiers is on the cover, under the word courage. Sooner or later, says Hammerney, the Arab Spring will catch up to the women who helped launch it.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.
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