Women were a driving force in the democratic uprisings in the Arab world, making it all the more disappointing that their demands for equal rights have gone largely unfulfilled. In joining in popular protests to oust dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, women were also fighting for their own freedom, a battle that if anything may have been set back.
Human Rights Watch deserves kudos for highlighting this issue in its World Report 2013. The wrangling over the new constitution in Egypt shows a lack of commitment by the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi to protect the rights and freedoms of women and minorities. Canada and other Western countries should not be afraid to press these new governments to respect equality rights for women. “As the Islamist-dominated governments of the Arab Spring take root, perhaps no issue will better define their records than the treatment of women,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director.
Cultural traditions can coexist alongside international human rights and norms. But they should not be used as an excuse to perpetuate discrimination in all its forms, be it the restriction of female judicial appointments, sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square, or female genital mutilation. Calling for reforms is not Islamophobic, but an acknowledgement that as cultures evolve, so too must a country’s laws. This is not a Western conceit but a way to strengthen a nascent democracy.
Canada and other Western nations continue to press for greater gender equality. The United Kingdom has introduced a bill – supported by Canada – to abolish discrimination in determining succession to the Throne, meaning age-old traditions are changing, and males will no longer inherit the throne ahead of older, female siblings.
In contrast, Egypt’s draft constitution talks about the need to “preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family” and to balance “the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.” Such vague wording is troubling. So is the fact that Sharia will be the primary source of jurisprudence; this could negatively impact on women’s rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance. Western governments should use political, diplomatic and financial channels to influence postrevolutionary governments and ensure the Arab spring includes a transformation in the way women are treated.