Washington — Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans all hope their revolutions are steering their countries toward greater freedoms and opportunities. For women, there is a special hope that the profound transformations they are seeing will allow them meaningful participation. But there is also a fear that the “Arab Awakening” could actually cause them to be further marginalized by men.
One day after Libyan interim leader Mustafa Adbul Jalil’s October 23 speech marking his country’s liberation from Muammar Qadhafi’s rule, the Voice of Libyan Women organization expressed disappointment not only that Jalil had called for polygamy, but also that he had merely thanked women for being mothers, sisters and wives.
“Need we remind him of the countless women who got arrested, killed and raped during this revolution, who fed and clothed our troops, smuggled weapons in their cars, hid soldiers in their homes, allowed and encouraged their sons, husbands, brothers and even fathers to go and fight?” asked the organization in an October 24 Facebook post.
Libya’s new rulers need to “understand that simply because women did not have the same job as men in this revolution it was not a lesser job. This was a Libyan revolution made by Libyan men and women,” the organization said.
In remarks to a November 2 U.S. Senate hearing in Washington, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, said women in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts in their joint struggle against well-entrenched autocratic regimes.
“Now they confront an equally difficult challenge,” Verveer said. Even as they are working to move their countries forward, they are also seeking to ensure that their own rights will not be jeopardized by “elements in their societies who no longer want to see them in the public square, [and who] certainly want to keep them out of the political process and away from the decisionmaking tables.”
The United States has remained a strong advocate for women’s rights around the world and is reaching out to women’s groups in the region, to academia, and to nongovernmental and pro-democracy organizations to help them find tools and training to better organize and participate in the new political landscape, she said.
“This is not a favor to women. It is not simply a nice thing to do,” Verveer said. “Women’s issues are everyone’s issues. Democracy without the participation of women is a contradiction in terms, and economies without the inclusion of women will not prosper.”
In fact, she said, “they’re going to be worse off.”
Verveer urged men who understand this also to get involved, saying “no good cause for women happens without the good men,” and that they have “an extraordinarily important role to play in making all of that go forward.”
In her meetings with Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian women, Verveer said, she has heard the recognition that change comes slowly, but also of their strong desire to not be pushed back.
The strength of women’s rights differs in the three countries, she said. For example, Tunisia has “a very long history of women’s rights that has been chiseled into their constitution.”
But she warned that some in Egypt see reforms such as in divorce laws and the outlawing of child marriages as being “tainted” because former Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak had so strongly advocated for them during her husband’s rule.
“It will be a severe loss to the kinds of progressive steps that have been made there if the baby is thrown out with the bathwater,” Verveer said.
The United States can help women in each country by providing them with resources and political and media skills, to help them “be the leaders that they know they need to be,” she said.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Tamara Wittes told the Senate hearing that the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has been funding projects to help women in all three countries since their revolutions.
In Tunisia, MEPI supported a “Get Out and Vote” campaign that encouraged women to vote and participate in their country’s recent elections, and it worked with Tunisian media “to look at the way they cover women in the campaign,” Wittes said. MEPI is also partnering with Tunisian groups for an upcoming national forum on the role of women in democratic transitions that will include women jurists, rights groups, civil society organizations and political party representatives.
MEPI has funded training programs for more than 200 Egyptian women in recent months to teach them “everything from lessons on how to confidently deliver a stump speech to skills that will help candidates build campaigns that resonate with voters,” Wittes said.
It is also providing support to newly emerging nongovernmental organizations in Libya, as well as the people who want to create new political parties to compete in Libya’s planned elections, she said.
All of these women “want the same things,” Wittes said. “They all want equality, equality under the law, equal opportunity.”
“Many of these women have suffered … over many years,” she said, and helping them to make connections with each other and with their colleagues around the world helps to break their sense of isolation.
That, Wittes said, is “perhaps one of the most important contributions we can make to giving them the motivation to keep going.”