Arab women have fought bravely over the last year to demand dignity and new freedoms. And their courage has been noted: In December, my Yemeni sister Tawakkol Karman became the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, in recognition of her principled democratic activism.
But launching transitions was the easy part.
Across the region, Arab women are realizing that while moves toward democracy can bring hope for long-suppressed rights, they can also unveil deep-seated discrimination that threatens to set women back.
In Tunisia, admirable efforts by the interim government to achieve parity in the Constituent Assembly elected last October were thwarted as most parties led their electoral lists with men. In Egypt, where a 12 percent quota for women’s representation was scrapped in the early days of transition, the new 508-seat People’s Assembly includes only 12 women—less than 3 percent. And last month Libyans celebrated one of their first democratic elections, for the local council in Misrata. The result? Twenty-eight men, zero women.
What’s more, women activists have faced harassment — not only by security forces but also by men who oppose to their presence in public life. In several countries, some newly empowered stakeholders have celebrated their hard-won freedom of expression by arguing in favor of rolling back women’s rights.
Received wisdom once held that steps towards democracy would lead inevitably to expanded rights for women, but that hasn’t quite turned out to be the case.
As our Arab Human Development Reports have presciently observed, the Arab world has for years suffered from four crucial deficits: in education, freedom, women’s empowerment, and human security — none of which can be addressed on its own.
In celebrating International Women’s Day, the world will note women’s achievements in every region and sphere of life. Today’s women and girls are healthier, better educated, and more productive than ever before, and women have emerged among leaders in every field around the world. But we must also reach out to our sisters in the Arab region, which lags far behind.
UNDP, where I serve as regional director for the Arab States, is providing support at this critical juncture by training female politicians in Tunisia, connecting Egyptians with global experience on democratic transitions, training civic leaders in Libya, and fostering political dialogue and transition processes in Yemen.
A new, critical milestone is now approaching as national bodies convene to draft new constitutions in these four countries. While each transition is unique, a new constitution is central to all—and widely acknowledged as such, as each society prepares to write its values into law.
The international community must insist that constitution-making must be participatory, inclusive, and anchored in treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. This Convention — most Arab countries are signatories — calls for governments to guarantee equality before the law for men and women, and freedom from discrimination based on gender. It demands that women’s rights and dignity must prevail over cultural and religious norms and practices.
Newly empowered actors inspired by faith may argue to the contrary. Some say women’s rights are a Western value, to be ignored or contested. Yet countless people in the region — male and female — find women’s rights both compatible with Islam and in keeping with their own history, from the high status of queens in Ancient Egypt to more recent advances in women’s education, employment, and legal and civil rights.
Advocates for equality must be able to speak out publicly at this juncture. UNDP and other UN agencies have offered to support Arab societies in conducting broadly participatory consultations on constitution-drafting, ensuring that as many voices as possible are heard in the process, and spreading awareness of governments’ broad obligations under international law. Getting constitutions right will help launch healthy political systems, thriving civil societies, and genuine progress toward full enjoyment of human rights for men and women alike.
Across the region, men and women have pressed bravely and unequivocally for social justice, dignity, and a say in the decisions that shape their lives. Their progress toward these goals will move only as fast as their progress in empowering women.
Amat Al Alim Alsoswa is Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the UN Development Programme in New York.