Is strategic coalition-building the ticket to securing women’s interests in the post-Arab Spring world?

The UN declaration that Syria is engaged in a civil war.  Ongoing tensions between the US and Iran. This weekend’s Egyptian presidential elections (tentatively won by Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi). Last week’s decision by SCAF to dissolve the Egyptian Parliament, which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood members.  The decision by SCAF to greatly limit the new president’s power, vesting part of it (legislation, budget) in their own hands.  These stories of life in the MENA have been the focus of major news outlets in recent weeks.  And who in the mainstream media is talking about where women fit into all of this (aside from being the victims of the Assad regime’s atrocities, the losers in Egyptian politics, and – well – virtually invisible in the current debates over what to do about Iran)?  Well no one, really, at least not in any sustained manner.  If past precedent is any indication of success, strategic coalition –building will be key to women’s particular concerns remaining front and center in the dialogues and debates about the shape of the post-Arab Spring MENA landscape.

As the refrain of history as often repeated, in times of war women are welcome as supporters.  In times of revolution women are encouraged to march in the streets side by side with their male counterparts.  Even during historic elections – like the one that brought the Refah Party to power in 1980’s Turkey, or the ones held to elect new Parliaments in Yemen, Egypt, and Afghanistan, as well as a new President in Algeria in 2009 – women’s participation is noted, praised, and heralded as an indication of progress(iveness).  But once the dust has begun to settle, and seats of power have been assigned, women and their particular concerns have usually been shifted to the back burner. The very men who called on women’s support, whose rise to power was in large part due to women’s activism, often fail to stand by those same women after coming to power.

So it is up to women to claim their rights and their place in history.  These will not simply be given to them.  And strategic coalition-building is one powerful tool in the arsenal of women’s groups that is increasingly being deployed to do just that.  The importance of strategic coalition-building has been hammered home by such activists as the Moroccan Nadia Yassine, who, in a lecture delivered at a conference on “Democracy and Global Islam” at the University of California, Berkeley in 2005, cited dialogue and mutual cooperation with the West as being key to developing a relationship that will enable the emergence of a democratic, free, and independent republic in Morocco that is able to avoid some of the mistakes that have plagued Western democracies.

Many other examples from the not-too-distant past suggest that strategic coalition-building among seemingly disparate groups will be key to securing women’s interests in a political landscape that is volatile at best, unwelcoming at worst.  A coalition of (state-sanctioned) Islamic religious scholars (‘ulama), secular feminists, and Islamist women secured the passage of the new and improved family law (Moudawana) in the wake of the Casablanca bombings in 2003, using the language and tools of the Islamic sciences to demonstrate that modifying this law was wholly in accordance with Shari’a.  In exile in Cairo, Amal Hassan, Yemeni activist, mother of three, domestic violence survivor, and founder of the NGO Hara’ir (“Free Women”) is seeking strategic partnerships with judges, tribesmen, Islamic religious scholars, and ordinary people to change laws that are detrimental to women’s rights in her country.  Using the Qur’an to prove that women are important members of society whose rights must be honored and respected, she has won the support of Hooria Mashour,Yemen’s Minister of Human Rights, who shares the same goals.

Strategic coalitions are also in evidence among elite and intellectual groups. In Egypt, the Women and Memory Forum initiated the Women and Constitution Working Group in 2011, joining it with the Coalition of Egyptian Feminist Organizations.  Like earlier approaches launched by women of the intellectual classes, these women use the language and perspectives of Islam to push a message of reform, but unlike their late 19th-century counterparts they increasingly have the necessary grounding in the Islamic sciences and methodologies, and know how to use this knowledge to maximum effect.  In Libya, the Network of Free ‘Ulema – a group of clerics which remained clandestine under the Gaddafi regime, claims to comprise a diverse membership (doctors, intellectuals, university professors, engineers, Sufi leaders, judges, lawyers, poets, and writers, men and women, of all ages, of various tribal backgrounds, locally educated and educated abroad) drawn from among Libya’s most senior and respected religious scholars.  They have publicly praised the role women played in the revolution and declared in their press release their commitment to support all Libyans in their quest for freedom and equality, including and especially equal training and education for women.

Outside of the Arab spring countries, coalitions have been seeking to transform society from the bottom up and the top down. In Indonesia, Islamist women’s NGOs like Fatayat Nadhlat ul-Ulama have long demonstrated that Shari’a can be a force for tolerance and a basis for building a civil society.  Working with other Islamist groups like Muhammadiyah and Nadhlat ul-Ulama, each with tens of millions of members, they support over ten thousand schools and hundreds of hospitals, youth organizations and women’s movements, and their political connections have enabled them to speak out, with maximum effect, against the imposition of an Islamic state.  They have also engaged in interfaith activities, such as the Global Peace Service project, held in Indonesia on October 16, 2010, to train youth activists to participate in a number of peace initiatives at the local level.

Finally, in Turkey, coalitions among women’s groups, and between them and the state, have been active on political and social fronts for a number of years.  The Diyanet (Ministry of Religious Affairs), recognizing the importance of women’s participation in Turkey’s religious reawakening, has added over 450 Vaizes, or female preachers, to the state roster within the past five years.  The coalition KADER engaged in a campaign over the rights of women to wear the headscarf and participate in society at all levels; efforts such as these seem to have borne fruit in the past two years, with the overturn of the ban on headscarved women entering some universities and becoming more insistent on public visibility.  Last August, 2011, I wrote in Near East Quarterlyonline about ongoing dialogues between a new generation of liberal secular feminists and headscarved women who have chosen to reject the status quo pitting secularism against Islamism.  These dialogues mirror an increase in coalitions between non-affiliated, former Refah Party women and secularist women’s groups in the 2000s.

Where do our most opportune coalitions lie?  As the political landscape shifts towards the greater visibility and political influence of Islamist parties, the West watches with a mixture of fear and concern.  Will they become our allies or our enemies?  Once in power, will they continue to support democratic ideals, or has all this democracy talk simply been window-dressing for something more sinister to come (read: Islamic Shari’a, which for so many of its detractors is synonymous with the absence of rights for women, religious minorities, and secularists)? No one wants to see a repeat of the post-election scene in Algeria, circa 1991, when elections were halted once it became clear that Islamists were certain to dominate Parliament, leading to a bloody civil war that consumed the country for almost a decade and cost over a hundred thousand lives.  So it’s a waiting game for now.  What is clear is that strategic coalition-building will be key to navigating the as-yet unknown waters of a post-Arab Spring political, social, and cultural landscape.  And here, the activities of women’s groups in the MENA and in other Muslim-majority lands can be instructive for learning how to share power, or more to the point, how to remain influential when American influence, in particular, seems to be waning in this evolving geopolitical landscape.

Like many of the women’s groups mentioned here have realized, effective coalition-building with emerging state and non-state actors, as well as ordinary people in the post-Spring MENA and beyond will involve a process of identifying key coalition partners, working out a shared plan of action, and engaging in a process of self-assessment that will enable coalitions to endure for the long run and achieve maximum effectiveness.  First, we can build diverse, above-board coalitions with emerging forces of influence and power that cross political, religious, sectarian, and socio-economic lines when we define, and commit to, upholding certain core values.  As Secretary Clinton’s congratulatory words following Tunisia’s Islamist Ennhada Party’s strong showing in elections last fall declared, the US will work with Islamist parties that rise to power in other Arab Spring lands, provided that they adhere to certain practices and ideals that we hold sacred: reject violence, uphold basic freedoms of assembly, speech, and religion, and protect the rights of women and minorities.  Second, we must ultimately focus on long-term goals, not just short-term, expedient objectives.  Third, we must work not only on bestprospects for coalitions, but on understanding and implementing best practices, wherever they may be in evidence.  This will require checking egos at the door, rejecting the tendency among and within US government agencies, for instance, to compete for credit, and will necessitate identifying and acting on each partner’s strengths, taking a backseat on certain aspects of projects, if need be.  Fourth, we must ensure a sustained, effective oversight of projects and campaigns.  Finally, we must agree to respect differences, as no effective coalition is made up of entities that share the exact same approaches, visions, and agendas, but rather, of entities that respect, and agree to mediate, differences in these areas.

Perhaps the moderate tone adopted by some Islamist groups, signaled in part by their growing inclusion of women in ways that signal their real (and not token or symbolic) influence and authority within these groups, make them more palatable to Western countries to engage.  Time will tell if the decision to pursue strategic coalitions with these groups to do this bears positive results, both for our relationships with the Muslim world, and for women’s ability to keep their agendas from being pushed to the back burner, once again.

ADDENDUM: This article, recently posted on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network speaks to the necessity of women’s strategic coalition-building and concurs with the central message of this post. Although the HBR blog post refers to US and UK women in the corporate world, it highlights the importance of partnerships as well as mentorships, the latter of which I have not explored here.  While many women in the MENA and Asia are able to break through to high-level leadership positions (such as that of head of party or head of state) because of their connections with powerful men, the aftermath of revolutions in the MENA promise to widen the scope for more women to enter into strategic alliances and mentorships with a broader contingent of stakeholders, including activist men, religious leaders, and international parties (NGO groups or the US Chamber of Commerce, for instance).  Future posts will explore the possibilities for creating effective mentorships in post-Arab Spring countries and beyond.