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Already there are subtle and not-so-subtle signs that Arab women are being sidelined. Essam Sharaf, Egypt's new Prime Minister, named just one woman to his Cabinet. For some women's-rights advocates, his creation of a committee dealing with women's advancement smacks of tokenism. "The previous regime implemented a quota system for women in parliament, but this didn't empower women in Egypt," says Mozn Hassan, director of the Cairo-based group Nazra for Feminist Studies, who opposes quotas or separating women's rights from broader democratic ones.
In Tunisia, activists are concerned about the potential rise of political Islam. Sheik Rashed Ghannouchi, leader of Islamist party El Nahdha, who returned in January after decades of exile, has sought to soften his party's line limiting women's rights. Tunisia's women, he says, need equality. He has supported the country's progressive Personal Status Code, which for 20 years has banned polygamy and child marriages and guaranteed women birth control, abortion rights and equal pay.
Still, Tunisian women are worried, says Nadya Khalife, of Human Rights Watch's women's-rights division, in an e-mail. "Women activists want to ensure that the gains [they have] made will not be set back by Islamist groups who may call for Shari'a law or stand in their way to improve the Personal Status Code," she says. "Already, some Islamist groups have started calling for mosques to be established in schools at the same time that women's groups are calling for the separation of church and state."
Wary of the fate of their Iranian sisters after their revolution, Egyptian women have been protesting against the sexism they see creeping into their country's transitional structures. The 10-member constitutional committee, which was tasked with coming up with constitutional amendments after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, didn't include a single woman. The civil group from which it took recommendations while preparing the amendments was called the Council of Wise Men. Women's groups were further outraged when the committee came up with Article 75, a proposed amendment to the constitution whose wording effectively limits Egypt's presidency to men. "Egypt's President is born to two Egyptian parents," it reads, "and cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman." When women's groups protested, the framers argued that Arabic allows masculine nouns to include women. It didn't wash. A coalition of 117 women's groups called for a rewording.
The transition period has created a divide between Egyptians who say this is a time for national unity and groups that say now is the moment for all Egyptians to press for their own interests, even if they're viewed as special ones. Women's-rights activists worry that if they're silent now, they'll never be heard. "Some people are saying, 'Now is not the time for women's rights, disability rights, children's rights,' " says activist El-Khouly. "They claim, 'Once there's democracy, there will be democracy for everyone.' But history has told us that women wait, wait, wait and then our rights never become a priority issue."
Beyond that, activists in Egypt and across the region insist that women's rights are intrinsic to the people's demands for social justice and democracy. "It's important to see women's rights as political rights," says Hassan. "But we don't expect it to be easy. Tahrir Square was a utopia, and society doesn't change in 15 minutes."