Beyond the secularist vs. Islamist divide: gender justice before and after the Spring

(original post Feb 9, 2013)

Today’s political debates on the changes happening in the post-Arab Spring MENA, continue to employ polarizing language. Casting the major sociopolitical players of the region solely in terms of “secularist” and “Islamist” is guaranteed to obfuscate rather than illuminate shared interests and possibilities for working together to address some of the persistent challenges in the region that bear upon US interests. This is only one example of the use of divisive language, but it is among the most trenchant.  One of the reasons why it is counterproductive to understanding, and building effective alliances with, the parties that have come into power within the post-Arab spring regimes of the MENA can be illustrated by looking at how past and current ruling authorities, and the civil society organizations (CSOs) that operate within these countries, have tapped the power of women.

My previous posts have explored ways in which women can engage in strategic coalition building with various stakeholders: NGOs, CSOs, political parties, academic institutions, local elites, and religious authorities. One theme that has begun to emerge from these initial points of inquiry, and that I aim to explore further over the next few months, is how the parties that have come into power in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, & Yemen, and that have elsewhere been invited into central political processes, as in the case of Morocco and Jordan, have sought out spaces that are neither wholly Islamic nor definitively secularist, but rather, embody elements of each while transcending both.  These parties rarely, if ever, refer to themselves as “Islamist”, thus disavowing the current pejorative political connotations of the term.  But unlike their predecessors – or previous incarnations – of decades ago, they have moved beyond narrow visions of defining “orthodox” Islam and “authentic” Muslims and begun to embrace many of the institutions of democracy, even if for some, this embrace has been more in word than in deed so far.

One likely indicator of how sincerely they have moved beyond a narrow vision of Islamic polity is how such parties are incorporating women, and women’s concerns, into their emerging visions. Tunisia’s example is promising, despite the current turmoil following the assassination of opposition figure Shokri Belaid, and despite the criticisms coming from many Tunisians that the Islamic-oriented government, led by An-Nahda (Ennahda), has fallen short of the revolution’s goals. First, Rashid Ghannouchi and An-Nahda have, so far, remained true to their pledge to leave Tunisia’s progressive Personal Status Laws (governing marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance), intact.  Second, from Tunisia’s governing bodies to its (urban) streets, the country’s women are present and active in significant numbers: women hold 23% of the seats in Parliament; as of the end of 2012, 52 of the 270 seats were held by women, of whom 42 were members of An-Nahda.  And unlike some of their counterparts in Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere, Tunisian female candidates are protected by law from being placed low on their party ballots (which would all but guarantee their electoral defeat). As a recent article by Doris H. Gray reveals, many female members of An-Nahda, too, publicly assert that women will have to be more centrally included in the process of governance to ensure the party’s survival as a political force, and they insist that An-Nahda has already begun making moves to do so.

Somewhat less encouraging is the situation in Morocco, where developments that have taken place since the February 20th movement suggest that the pace of change is progressing slowly and haltingly.  A number of previous reforms have laid a solid foundation for gender mainstreaming and the enforcement of women’s rights, but there have also been many troubling setbacks.  For example, in 2004, a coalition of Islamic religious leaders (‘ulama) and their followers and secular feminist organizations, under the aegis of King Mohammad VI, brought welcome reforms to the Moudawana, or Personal Status Laws. Yet other laws, such as the penal code, continue to have distressing implications for girls, women, and their families.  Witness the suicide of Amina Filali, age 16, and the more recent case of a 14-year old girl, both raped and then forced to marry their rapists. Under article 475 of Morocco’s penal code, a rapist may escape prosecution by marrying his victim, and in the views of many, such a marriage also spares the “honor” of the girl.  In the summer of 2011, following King Mohammad VI’s withdrawal of Morocco’s reservations to CEDAW, Moroccans voted to accept constitutional reforms that include a commitment to gender equality, and equal opportunities for men and women to elected office.  Yet the sole female minister in the 31-member cabinet of the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) heads the Ministry of Family and Women’s Affairs, which has been a quintessentially “feminine” appointment in governments across the MENA, both under secular and Islamic-oriented governments.

Finally, some of the least promising trends may be found in Egypt and Libya where two of the three most transformational Arab Spring revolutions took place.  Egypt’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has come under fire from opponents who accuse it of having a “secret” Islamist agenda. This weakens the FJP’s ability, and resolve, to deal with increasing levels of harassment against women.  The President of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, has publicly stated his support for women’s rights in a number of areas, including political and economic enfranchisement, legal rights, and working with secular feminist advocacy groups.  Yet he is beset by opposition on multiple sides, which often serves to undermine any concrete steps the Morsi government may take to actualize these aims.  And the Islamic Bloc (a Salafist coalition led by the al-Nur party), which won the second-highest number of seats in Parliament, has taken a decidedly strong stance against many of the women’s rights issues that activists have brought to the fore of public discourse. These include women’s political participation in any but token, weakened positions, and the imposition of particularly harsh interpretations of Islamic Shari’a law. Egypt’s civil society, already weakened under the Mubarak regime, has so far only mounted a feeble opposition to such threats.

Libya seems to be faring little better, though again, there are some encouraging signs of improvement: Libya’s 51-member (as of 2011) National Transitional Council (NTC) included only three women, while the newly elected (as of July 2012) General National Congress (GNC) comprises 33  women among its 200-member body (roughly 17%). This past January 14th, the female members of the GNC formed a caucus to guarantee the representation of women on the committee charged with drafting the constitution, and to advocate for women’s rights and political participation, more broadly. The caucus was reportedly formed in response to other members’ calls to maintain gender segregation in the group.  If that is true, then it suggests that Libyanwomen, like their counterparts in Egypt and Morocco, have an uphill battle.  The lack of political institutions or a civil society prior to Gadhafi’s fall, the deep social divisions along ethnic, tribal, regional, and local lines, the tenuous hold that the GNC has on areas outside of Tripoli, and that fact that Libya remains a deeply conservative society despite women’s relatively high levels of education, labor force participation, and low birth rates, all mean that women’s concerns are likely to be sidelined unless women and their supporters are able to keep up the pressure.

The efforts of current administrations to support, and foster, gender mainstreaming and women’s rights issues, and to put an end to gender-based violence, should be measured against those of previous regimes. The enfranchisement of women has been framed since colonial times as a mark of progress and “modernity,” even though the reality of women’s rights in the Western European nations in the colonial era often did not match the rhetoric of gender justice promulgated by those nations. Yet these associations remain salient today. And it is true that efforts to enfranchise women and increase and enforce their rights since then have, overall, benefitted women in ways that even the champions of gender equality did not imagine.

However, prior to the Arab Spring, many of these efforts, particularly where they have been directed or controlled from outside, or from the top down, have been rightly criticized.  Witness the political participation of Libyan women at all levels under Gadhafi’s rule: from their activities in the Basic People’s Congresses (BPCs) and the General People’s Committees (GPCs), signs of women’s empowerment were highly visible.  While on a delegation to Tripoli in January of 2010 to assess Libya’s progress on gender equality, my colleagues and I were repeatedly reminded by our Libyan hosts that women had claimed their human rights, and that this was evidenced by such achievements as women’s high literacy rates, superior health indicators, and inclusion in the Libyan military since 1979.  Yet the responses to our attempts to find out to what extent the BPCs and GPCs could function as more than merely “advisory” bodies (whose advice, in practice, Gadhafi often ignored), or why women who had been raped were still being forced to marry their rapists (ostensibly, to preserve their “honor” in a social system that stigmatized the rape victim), were met with hostile silence from Gadhafi’s ministers, or claims that we “didn’t really understand” the freedoms that Libyan women enjoyed, especially in comparison to their neighbors in the MENA.  These efforts to demonstrate the visible signs of women’s empowerment to the rest of the world masked the difficulties women in Libya faced then, and continue to face now in the post-Gadhafi era. Women in Libya, as elsewhere in the MENA, continue to fight to exercise genuine agency and self-determination within the boundaries of sociopolitical systems that dictate by narrow parameters whether, and how, they may do so.

In Mubarak’s Egypt, too, signs of women’s empowerment were there for the world to see.  Women participated in the formal labor force under the Mubarak regime – in fact, as Sahar Nasr’s 2010 study of Egyptian women in the labor force notes, the UNDP’s Egypt Human Development Report of 2008 recorded a 7.6% rise in their participation (from 15.4% to 23%) between 2001 and 2006 and relatively low gender wage gaps in the public sector.  These signs of women’s progress even had a public champion and figurehead in the former first lady of Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak, whose National Council for Women (NCW, founded in 2000 by presidential decree) championed the cause of women’s empowerment. Yet these signs must be weighed against other, mitigating forces and circumstances. While women’s participation in the formal labor force rose, their rate of unemployment also rose (by 5.3% in that same 2001-2006 time frame), gender wage gaps remained high in the private sector, and there were several major structural barriers to women’s participation in this sector, particularly in entrepreneurship.  Critics have also pointed out that the NCW tended to benefit the “favorites” of Mrs. Mubarak, while ultimately undermining the power of civil society organizations such as NGOsMany Egyptian NGOs were forced to either reject the funding of large donors like the UNDP and USAID to avoid having their program priorities dictated by the interests of these donors, or to accept this funding (channeled through the NCW), and refrain from addressing trenchant structural obstacles to truly “leveling the playing field”, such as corruption, cronyism, and police detentions, that prevented women and men alike from reaching their full potential in society

So the central questions remain, as the world watches: how much will the agendas for gender justice in the region be transformed into genuine and effective vehicles for social change?  To what extent will development schemes that aim to bring about the political and socio-economic enfranchisement of women in the region benefit the many rather than those who are politically connected or who best understand how to speak the language of gender equality as NGOs and international donors understand it?  Will the administration of Mohammad Morsi and the newly elected government of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan end up pursuing the same, half-hearted yet geopolitically expedient schemes for enfranchising women as their predecessors?  And perhaps most important, in looking at the changes that have begun to take place over the past few years, changes that pre-date the Arab Spring, can we speak of emerging spaces for a true mainstreaming of gender empowerment in the MENA? There are some indications that this may, indeed, be the case.

The routinization of gender empowerment under secular regimes– which served more as “window dressing” to the world than as genuine avenues of widespread change — ultimately undermined the agency of women under Mubarak and Gadhafi.  For all the criticism that has been leveled against Islamist parties on the gender front, the secular regimes of the pre-Arab spring MENA have demonstrated, all too starkly, that secularism does not automatically entail greater women’s rights. Under the previous regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, women’s rights functioned as a vehicle for gaining symbolic capital that translated into greater aid, and accolades, from the Western nations and large international donors. By contrast, the actors on the ground who have done the most to advance women’s rights have been the CSOs, and we should look to how governments prevent or enable them to carry on their work if we are to truly gauge the success or sincerity of their women’s rights agendas.  Certainly under Mubarak, Gadhafi, Ben Ali, and other “secular” regimes, CSOs were tightly controlled, and their agendas limited.  Morocco has fared better but criticisms of its top-down approach and the Interior Ministry’s oversight of NGO activities are valid.  If the regimes in power today make space for women’s full political and economic participation, and do not try to limit the agendas of actors on the ground to achieve greater rights and opportunities for women, even a bit of “window dressing” may produce a second spring, one that sees the goals of true enfranchisement, and gender justice, realized.