Qaddafi's public rambling today has told us nothing about what will happen in Libya, nor whether the bloody reprisals against protesters will end. But as the dust settles on Tunisia and Egypt's unusually peaceful revolutions, women inside and outside of those countries are asking what's next for them.
Of course, each country's policies and practices towards women has varied, but both North African nations where revolutions have already taken place boast relatively high levels of rights and literacy for women. The key question now is whether those are about to be eroded. The specter of an Islamist curtailing of women's rights, after all, was bandied about as reason to worry about Mubarak's departure.
The short answer is, no one knows yet. But observers, including the U.S., were alarmed when there was not a single woman on the new committee for Egypt's constitution. "Women in #Egypt protested for change. It is a concern that women are excluded from the constitutional committee that must ensure all rights," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said via Twitter. Egyptian women launched a petition to get a woman at the table — and within days had more than 11,000 signatures.
Isobel Coleman recently wrote in The Washington Post, "Women's rights will be a litmus test for the new government — a sign of where the country is headed." We'll see this first in the constitutional reform efforts, she wrote, where sharia is expected to play some part, as it already does in the existing constitution. "The real issue is what kind of Islam will exert most influence," she added.
In Tunisia, former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali used to point to the freedoms enjoyed by women as a reason to keep him in power. The International Herald-Tribune notes, "For three decades, women's rights were his bulwark against Islamists at home and his alibi with Western governments inquiring about human rights abuses. (An alibi they were all too happy to accept.)" But it wasn't just lip service; for decades, Tunisian women have lived under significantly more liberal circumstances:
Tunisian women were among the first in the Arab world to obtain the right to vote, shortly after independence in 1956. They secured abortion rights the same year U.S. women did and have a greater share of seats in Tunisia's Parliament than women have in the French Parliament. Polygamy is banned, marriage conditional on female consent and miniskirts as common a sight as the Muslim head scarf in Tunis's cityscape.
The suggestion here is that educating women and codifying their rights came back to haunt Ben-Ali, because those women, too, turned against him. As for what comes next, so far you have to read the signs. A returning opposition leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who had previously opposed many of these reforms, has recently been talking up women's rights, which a Tunisian human rights lawyer tells The Herald Tribune "may be tactical, but the fact that he feels he has to talk this way is a pretty good indication that wanting to roll back women rights is no way to gain support in Tunisia right now."
The secretary general of the International Federation of Human Rights, Khadija Cherif, was even more optimistic: "Arab women have the most to gain from a new century of Arab enlightenment." We'll be watching. As Coleman warns, "Tunisian and Egyptian activists should know that women's rights often become bargaining chips for some other agenda," pointing to post-Baathist Iraq. The only thing that preserved women's rights there, she says, is a U.S. veto — and backlash from local women's groups.