Women's Movements and the Rise of Islamist Governments

Samar Muhareb

Some of the Middle East countries are going through an Arab Spring that brought changes in many fields, most significant of which is Arab women's participation in the political life, especially after their proven absence from post-revolutions governments and the demands of women presence and participation. Recently, this absence has led to the increase in the activity of women rights movements and associations, demanding broader political participation, particularly in light of Islamists' ascension to power. The most imminent threat posed by Islamists to women's movements and rights is presented by extreme rightists who stand strictly against women participation in leadership fields and limiting their freedoms and given rights.

Women's participation in political and public life is a global issue, and not exclusively an Arab one. However, the concerns arising from the Islamist movements and their growing control over women's freedoms in the Arab world remain prominent for the following reasons:

  1. Constant accusations against women's right movements of being a product of Western colonialism and of being outsiders to conservative Eastern societies, and of aiming at estranging and separating women from their social, cultural and religious traditions and roots. This, unfortunately, is the unfair albeit general view of modernism, which is a result of the association of many recent developments in many fields with the West. Many of the Arab women's movements accomplishments are regarded as the remains of the foreign cultural colonialism or as the product of vicious conspiracies plotted by the West against Arab culture and Islam.
  2. Associating women's movements with the wives of deposed leaders and with the financial and moral corruption they represented as well as the shallowness of cultural reference. Some think that women's rights agendas are adopted in the hopes of pleasing the West and attracting foreign funds with its suspicious agendas. This has had a significant negative effect on the women's movement demands, which in part was backed by this category. Nevertheless, I have to say that these allegations regarding Islamists are not entirely true; as we witnessed a clear change with the development of the political Islam experience. The anti-Islamists realize that the Islamists are working to absorb and wisely deal with all modern society components and their versatile and different characteristics, this gives hope that conservatives will acknowledge that the women's movements' demands do not necessarily conflict with the values and heritage of the Arab society.

Here we will show the Turkish women experience as an example, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920's, the region has witnessed many disturbances that negatively affected the stability of the later political regimes in the region. The biggest concern of governments and politicians during this era was to maintain stability, so they strived to please certain groups usually at the expense of others, which contributed significantly to the marginalization of women issues and rights. The Turkish women case is the best example; although women received some freedoms under Ataturk's reign, they suffered oppression on the social and legal levels during and after that reign due to the conflict between articles of the civil law and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This continued until the 2000's. Two main factors contributed to this turning point: the first is the effective campaigns led by women's movements calling for reforms through amending laws; the second factor is the support of these demands by the Islamic parties. Among the ranks of these parties, there were women members who "sought through their membership in Islamist groups means to challenge the status quo of women's rights" as described by the American researcher Jenny White.

Many observers attribute Turkish women's gains in the past decade to the emergence of Islamist groups such as the National Order Party (also known as the Welfare Party) and the following Justice and Development Party, and mainly to the wisdom of the women in dealing with these parties and the ability of the women to utilize Islam and its noble values in women's favor and in opposing Islamist governments. These parties played a major role through establishing active women's divisions. In Umraniya, for example, women constitute half the 50000 members of the Welfare parties. In addition to women's activities in political parties, women have also achieved significant progress in their participation in the Turkish parliament. In 2007, the number of women MPs almost doubled from 27 MP to 50 MP. Thanks to this empowerment, Turkish women started to call for their right to education and higher education without discrimination on basis of religion or dress, and finally succeeded in being an important political force. Women proved that Islam is the gate and maintained their rights and Islamic custom.

Similarly, many researches and studies have demonstrated the major role women have played in the Arab Spring revolutions, at all levels, especially in terms of quantity rather than quality. Namely, the percentage of parliament seats won by women has risen since the revolutions; for example, in Tunisia, women won 27.18% of the seats, which is the highest percentage among the Arab countries. Things were different in Egypt where women won only four seats. However, women's participation in the presidential elections was the highest in Egyptian history, as voters not as candidates. The logical reasons behind this include the cancellation of the quota system and the adoption of the candidates' list mechanism without any monitoring by women. Law stipulates that each candidates' list should include at least one woman with no regards to the position she takes on the list. This resulted in placing the names of all the women candidates at the bottom of most lists. Women's movements should have demanded to study the draft law and force the legislator to give equal opportunity at least in a society strongly controlled by traditions and trends that marginalize women.

It has been advised that the legislator consider the experiences of other countries which have implemented similar mechanisms such as Palestine and Iraq. The Iraqi law stipulates that the rate of women candidates to men candidates in any list must be 1:4 (one to four). The Palestinian Law, on the other hand, stipulates that a woman should be among the top three candidates in each list. The lack of women's participation in partisan life in an efficient and effective manner has caused more parties to neglect women's integration and to exclude women from the top places in candidates' lists, and often from candidacy entirely.

In conclusion, I wish to reiterate that what Arab women are facing now are new challenges. Women have successfully surpassed much harder challenges in the past. Let us look for the available opportunities and even create them in this new era of Arab history and try to take advantage of them by all means possible whether locally or through learning from international experiences. One of the most important outcomes of the Arab Spring is that it has created a space for exchanging and accepting views transparently and constructively. Moreover, the revolutions have shaped a strong generation on whose potentials and skills we can build to actively and vividly overcome all obstacles. This creates the opportunity to put forth the legitimacy of women's issues and rights and to garner public support and backing people's support, especially if women adopted such reform views that serve the entire society, so that woman as the most important component of this society would undertake their major role in the much needed reform and development.

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