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Middle East: So you talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

Ill.: Arild Sæther

There is need for action over words. To date, conventions and standards about women’s rights have been strong in text, but they have failed to actualize measurable, tangible changes in the countries that have adopted them.

31.03.2014 Av: Hibaaq Osman

Beacuse Our Cause is Just - a film by WLP
Beacuse Our Cause is Just - a film by WLP


Three years ago, an uprising began in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East and North Africa bringing with it not only hope, but evidence that change is possible.

This was certainly a movement sweeping across the region through actions and not words. 

The people stood together side by side, prayed together side by side, and hoped together side by side for their futures. As long-standing dictatorships toppled, many wondered what was next. Many also worried that, despite the difficult and oppressive living conditions they experienced under these dictators, the unknown that awaited their families and communities would be worse.

At the crux of these transitions is how we have begun to define the post-uprising states resulting from these public protests, and how well they will uphold the ideals of the Arab uprisings. 

Following political transitions in many of these countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, there remains the question of how will the changes so clearly and vehemently advocated for be implemented for the good of these countries, their people, and for women?

Women left behind

For a while, it seemed women were having a moment. Seen on the frontlines, they were their own advocates, but also the advocates for equal human rights for all those facing marginalization socially, economically, politically, and culturally. But soon, conservative agendas gained momentum. Islamist parties won majorities in both Tunisia and Egypt in their post-transition elections, leaving conservative influences to fill the political vacuums left in the wake of the uprisings.

Tunisia and Egypt were the first two countries to move forward in building new constitutions, however, in the language of the documents and in the committees themselves, women quickly saw themselves left behind. 

For Tunisians, this was particularly shocking, as Tunisia had long boasted a progressive constitution that affirmed equal rights between men and women. 

In Egypt, this environment meant women’s rights were under direct attack. In the first few months of office, Former President Mohamed Morsi and his regime suggested rights won under the Mubarak regime, including women’s unilateral right to divorce (‘khul’) and protection from early marriage, should be repealed.

Ill.: Thierry Ehrmann (Flickr)
Ill.: Thierry Ehrmann (Flickr)

Women protesting against constitutional drafts 

Women’s rights activist sand broader liberal contingents in both countries protested conservative agendas and constitutional drafts. 

In Egypt, this culminated in a second uprising—the 5th of June revolution, which resulted in the forced resignation of President Morsi and reinstated the army as the reigning political power. Trying to get Egypt back on track, the constitutional committee moved forward with a new constitution, which removed controversial elements of the 2012 constitution and better reflected the ideals advocated for in Tahrir Square in 2011.

In January 2014, the new Egyptian constitution was put to a public referendum and backed by 98.1 percent of people who voted. Turnout was 38.6 percent of 53 million eligible voters, according to the election committee. But it was not so cut and dry. It was said that thousands did not read the document thoroughly, but judged it politically, using their vote as a way of demonstrating allegiance to individuals rather than preferred political parties. Those who supported the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood rejected it, while those who supported the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) accepted it.

Egyptian constitution grants gender equality

Allegiances aside, the new Egyptian constitution is a notably strong document. It sets up limits and terms, for instance, a two four-year-term limit for the president, who will be impeachable by parliament. It also upholds the basic human rights of all citizens, and provides more space with regard to the freedom of speech. While it upholds Islam as the state religion, it guarantees freedom of belief, protecting religious minorities from persecution. It outlaws political parties based on “religion, race, gender, or geography,” effectively also banning the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. The new constitution also curtails the role of Islam in legislation and politics, reaffirming Sharia as the principle source of legislation but removing the article giving religious leaders the right to interpret it.

Even more noteworthy, and perhaps surprising in the wake of the turmoil that Egypt has faced in the last three years, is the fact that this document upholds and reflects many of the ideals and values of the 25th of February and 5th of June revolutions, especially with regard to women. There are more than twenty articles relating to women and discussing their equal rights under the law. For instance, Article 11 grants equality of women and men with respect to all rights, including political rights, social rights, cultural rights, and economic rights. The article from the 2012 constitution referring to the traditional Egyptian family was removed. Meanwhile, women’s equal representation in parliament and in public positions (mayoral, local councils) has also been adopted in the new constitution.

Despite its strength, however, there is still the question of how those who fail to implement it can be held accountable. The constitution will be powerless without active implementation. It must be supported by national and local infrastructures, beginning with stringent laws that reinforce its articles and intentions. 

Ill.: Gigi Ibrahim (Flickr)
Ill.: Gigi Ibrahim (Flickr)

Walking the walk

Women’s rights advocates have attained many victories throughout long years of struggle, securing incremental rights and protections over the years. 

In 2008, women’s rights activists won protection under a new law on domestic violence in Jordan and a 64-seat quota for women’s political participation in Egypt. In 2012, women from all walks of life in Libya won an alternate quota for women that gained nearly 17 percent of seats in the new assembly for women. In 2013 in Yemen, women gained a place in the National Dialogue Conference and in the adopted recommendations, where it was said at the dialogue’s conclusion in 2014 that women should make up thirty percent of the new Yemeni assembly in the new government.

We can and must continue this work. The Egyptian Constitution sets forth principles and theories of equality that, if implemented, could be positively impactful in the overall advancement and protection of women and girls, and of all minorities. However, what have yet to be identified are the local constituencies and infrastructures that will enforce these principles and ensure, with penalty, that women enjoy freedom in reality and not only in theory.

Without action, words are just that – words.  We are now at a critical juncture, not only in Egypt and Tunisia, but also in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, where discussions of peace and transition are ongoing, and in Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan, where women continue to face vulnerability due to the absence of hard-hitting laws. Establishing ‘red lines’, holding conferences, announcements and denouncements – these are the warm blankets that governments and their institutions have used to cover the glaring need to work beyond textual commitments and to find new ways to galvanize sustainable action at the local, national, and international levels.



Hibaaq Osman is the CEO of Karama.


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