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What Role For Women After The Arab Spring?

How can arab women play a role in their countries after the arab spring in both political and economic areas.
Amanda Riggs | 12.01.2012
As a Western woman who worked in Egypt for years and continues to travel to the region, I am not optimistic about the rights of women in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. When dictators began to fall in Tunisia, Egypt, and later Libya, I was ecstatic for my friends across the Middle East and North Africa who, for the first time, could taste what political empowerment felt like. The Arab Spring signaled opportunity, new beginnings, possibility, and most of all hope.

My friends and colleagues were so proud to be Egyptian – they stood with their heads high for achieving the unthinkable. When I lived in Cairo, I truly believed that the Egyptian people would never overcome their fear and take to the streets to protest. And yet, Egyptians were inspired by the Tunisians and thirst for their own freedom. From Washington, D.C., I watched YouTube videos and read Facebook posts of what was happening in cities across Egypt and, for the first time, witnessed real political debates about the future of the country and what Egyptians want for themselves. I was humbled to watch and elated to see what the power of the people – including women – can accomplish at the heart of Tahrir Square.

But now that Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt have all gone to the polls in the fall of 2011, my optimism has been crushed and I fear for the rights of women in the Middle East. All three countries have begun to elect religious-dominated parties into their parliaments and there could be new restrictions imposed on women. Already, Egypt has rescinded the hard-fought quota for female representation in its parliament. We’ve all watched the horrific videos of an Egyptian woman protestor being dragged through the streets and beaten for standing up against the security forces demanding the ouster of the military. While there are elements of women in each country that choose to be religiously pious, there are also liberal groups of women who want the right to choose to be secular and not wear the veil. While the Tunisian government has said it won’t restrict women from wearing bikinis on the beach, this does not mean the new governments will protect them from being harassed.

With a religious-dominated government, those in power could backtrack on the achievements made by the women’s rights movements to date. I now read the impending doom felt by Egyptian women on Facebook in statements like, “Ladies, get out your burkas!” or “I’ll be knitting at home from now on” and “The Salafis declared high heels forbidden.”

Almost a year since the Arab Spring began, I have witnessed cycles of promise and now feel a deep sense of worry for what 2012 will bring. Should life take a turn for the worse for women in the Arab world, I hope that they will remember the optimism they felt earlier this year, and should they choose to continue their public demonstrations, fight for a new women’s movement across the Middle East.
About the author: Amanda Riggs

Amanda Riggs is an advisor on the Middle East at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a member of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.