As change sweeps through the Arab world and dictatorships are toppled, will women's rights be forgotten as it happened in Iran?

As the Arab Spring moves through the Arab Autumn towards winter, there is hope but also anxiety and apprehension about the future. The elections in Tunisia — with a record 90 per cent turnout — have triggered the hope that countries like Egypt and Yemen and now Libya, will also witness a peaceful transition to a democracy they have never known. But the grounds for apprehension are abundant.

As the world watches, a key question that is being raised is that of women's rights in the new political arrangements emerging in these countries. Arab women have spoken out, emphasising that a guarantee of their human rights is a prerequisite to a just society. But in the noise of the celebrations as dictators get toppled, these voices are sometimes being drowned out.

Arab voices

I was privileged to attend a fascinating discussion on the future of women in the Arab world at a recent conference in France. The Women's Forum for Society and the Economy 2011 drew together over a thousand women from around the world. But what turned out to be the most riveting session was the one where women from Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and the renowned human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Award winner Shirin Ebadi from Iran discussed how the future of Arab women would emerge following the Arab Spring. It threw up a relevant discourse on religion, secularism and law.

If women's rights are also human rights, then should societies fighting for the reassertion of human rights also first guarantee women their rights? Is it possible to allow religion to dictate law if the interpretation of that religion is left to men? Are rights that women have won, even in a dictatorship, still valid even after the overthrow of the dictator? Is it possible to have a ‘ secular' constitution and still respect religion and religious laws?

These were some of the questions that wove their way through the remarks made by the participants. Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, an impressive woman from Egypt who has been a diplomat and a Minister for Family and Population and is now a human rights activist, pointed out that even under Hosni Mubarak, women had won many rights. In fact, she was one of those central to bringing in laws to criminalise female genital mutilation (FGM) that is widespread in Egypt and other north African countries, raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, give women the right to initiate divorce, give women the right to custody of their children after divorce and allow children born outside wedlock to be registered. But now, after the January 25 uprising that led to the overthrow of Mubarak, she says there are voices that have been raised against these rights calling them “Suzanne's laws”. Suzanne was Mubarak's wife and all these changes were initiated in her name. But, asked Ms. Khattab, why should rights that women had won after a struggle be negated just because they had been initiated during a hated dictatorship? The role of women in the January 25 revolution was crucial, she said. Women challenged tradition when they went out and protested and even spent nights out in Tahrir square. Yet, today in Egypt, women's rights are being questioned.

Nadwa Al Dawsari is a young activist from Yemen. She has spent many days in Freedom Square in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a with this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, who lives in a tent in the square. Ms. Dawsari said there was an assumption that in tribal societies, like the one in Yemen, women had no rights. Yet, over 30 per cent of the protestors in Freedom Square were women. The young people of Yemen wanted a civil state, not an Islamic state, she said. She insisted that what was important now was to get the dictator to leave Yemen and for free elections to be held. Other issues could be tackled later, even if the election brought the Islamists to power.

Tunisian women, however, are not as confident as Ms. Dawsari about the Islamists coming to power. In fact, many have gone on record to say they fear for the future if the Islamist party, al Nahda, wins the elections. But what primarily concerned Amira Yahyaoui, a young blogger and militant human rights activist from Tunisia, was that women's rights in Tunisia ought not be compared to other Arab countries but to those where women are better off. “We want women and men to have real equality. Women need to be considered not as women but as human beings. What we have at present is not enough,” she said. Currently, although Tunisian women have more rights than their counterparts in some other Arab countries, they do not have equal rights of inheritance. They also cannot marry non-Muslims.

Ms. Yahyaoui was also not confident that women would have enough of a say in the process of constitution-making in Tunisia. Under the list system of proportional representation, women did not stand a chance of winning in substantial numbers as political parties tended to push male candidates to the top of their lists.

After listening to the young women from Tunisia and Yemen, Shirin Ebadi spoke. “Look at Iran”, she told them, “Do not repeat our mistakes.” When she saw images of the protestors in Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, she saw them demanding democracy. “Did anyone say we are against polygamy? That we want divorce rights? That we are human beings and need equal rights? You are making the same mistake Iranian women made. We thought we could demand women's rights after the revolution”, she said.

Ms. Ebadi said that the Iranian women who participated in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran, knew what they did not want. They wanted an end to dictatorship. What they did not demand and insist upon were the rights that they did want. They did not go on the streets and demand an end to polygamy, or the right to divorce. It was taken for granted that these rights could be negotiated later.

Biased interpretation

“I am a practising Muslim woman”, said Ms. Ebadi, “but when a government is based on Sharia law, it can be interpreted in different ways.” She said that she did not believe that Sharia law was against human rights and democracy. But when it is left to men within a patriarchal system to interpret that law, inevitably the suppression of women's rights is justified. The best way to prevent that, she advised her Arab sisters, was to push for women's rights during the struggle. “Don't wait for the victory. Choose your allies. Dictate these conditions before the alliance”, she said.

She reminded the Tunisian about a recent incident where a TV channel was attacked for telecasting the film “Persepolis”, an animated feature film about women's rights in Iran. The director of the channel had to give a public apology. “These are not good signs”, she said. Ms. Ebadi said that although Iranian women had succeeded, even under a fundamentalist regime, in wresting many rights, these were not enough. “We are expecting a bigger victory. Aim for complete equality between the rights of women and men”, she said.

As the Arab world goes through a political churning, the voices of these women need to be heard, and heeded.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com