Is the Arab Spring Hurting Arab Women?

While protests continue to rage in Syria and a new government takes shape in Libya, the origin of the Arab Spring has attained a huge milestone: Tunisia successfully held its first election last week, and aside from scattered protests and violence, the contest appears to have been largely peaceful, free and fair - not to mention high-turnout (over 70% of eligible voters cast ballots). Three cheers for Tunisia!

But Western secularists may have reason not to be entirely sanguine about the results. The biggest winner in the Tunisian election was Ennahda, an Islamic party banned by the former regime. Many news articles I've seen refer to it as a "moderate" Islamic party, but the accuracy of that adjective is debatable. As Ophelia Benson points out, there are some ominous signs of what this may portend for Tunisian women, like reports of gender-segregated polling places in neighborhoods that strongly supported Ennahda.

I want to emphasize that this is an absolutely legitimate concern and Ophelia is right to raise it. If there's anything that could undermine my support for the Arab Spring, it's this: the possibility that theocracy may actually gain a stronger foothold, that newly-Islamic governments will move backwards and women in these countries will suffer. (A theocracy is bad for everyone under it, of course, but women in particular have reason to fear the prospect of government dominated by violently patriarchal and misogynist religion.) And it presents an agonizing dilemma for supporters of human rights: which is more valuable, democracy or equal rights for women? If gaining one means giving up the other, how can we possibly choose?

I've been wrestling with this myself. But again, without denying the seriousness of this concern, what are we supposed to say to the people of Arab countries - we don't want you to have democracy because we don't trust what you might do with it? That would be intolerably hypocritical. More importantly, what's the alternative? The only other option I can see is continuing to support brutal, corrupt, kleptocratic dictators against their own people, just because we think they might be slightly more secular. The U.S. has practiced that brand of realpolitik for decades, and look where it got us.

Even at its best, democracy is fallible, often badly so. Don't forget that this country, at its inception, denied the vote to women and slaves! By modern standards, it was hardly a democracy at all. In that respect, at least, Tunisia is actually starting out ahead of where we did.

But although it's fallible, democracy has a more robust self-correction mechanism than tyranny. In the long run, dictators usually try to placate the most extreme groups, because those pose the greatest threat to their staying in power. Elected leaders, however, are accountable to all the people. Most significantly, whatever its own goals, Ennahda will have to appeal to women to have a hope of staying in power. And there may be one other reason for optimism: as this article points out, Ennahda got a plurality, not a majority. They won 40% of the vote, more than any other single party; but they were also the only Islamic party in the running, meaning that a majority of Tunisian voters opted for secular parties.

It's too soon to tell whether this trend will be repeated in other new Arab democracies, but I wouldn't be surprised if most of them end up opting for Islam-inflected democracies (just as America, in practice, is a Christian-inflected democracy). Since in most cases these will end up replacing Islam-inflected dictatorships, I find it hard not to regard this as an improvement. As long as women have a voice in society, they can bring about change for the better, even if it doesn't produce an overnight improvement in their status. One might fairly say that for Arab women, the work of the Arab Spring is only half-done.

Image: Souad Abderrahim, a victorious Ennahda candidate from Tunisia's election. She doesn't wear a headscarf. Image credit: Parti Mouvement Ennahdha, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY 2.0 license.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard: Men who can do 40 pushups have a 'significantly' lower risk of heart disease

Turns out pushups are more telling than treadmill tests when it comes to cardiovascular health.

Airman 1st Class Justin Baker completes another push-up during the First Sergeants' push-up a-thon June 28, 2011, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Participants were allowed 10 minutes to do as many push-ups as they could during the fundraiser. Airman Baker, a contract specialist assigned to the 354th Contracting Squadron, completed 278 push-ups. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Janine Thibault)
Surprising Science
  • Men who can perform 40 pushups in one minute are 96 percent less likely to have cardiovascular disease than those who do less than 10.
  • The Harvard study focused on over 1,100 firefighters with a median age of 39.
  • The exact results might not be applicable to men of other age groups or to women, researchers warn.
Keep reading Show less

U.S. reacts to New Zealand's gun ban

On Thursday, New Zealand moved to ban an array of semi-automatic guns and firearms components following a mass shooting that killed 50 people.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Gun control supporters are pointing to the ban as an example of swift, decisive action that the U.S. desperately needs.
  • Others note the inherent differences between the two nations, arguing that it is a good thing that it is relatively hard to pass such legislation in such a short timeframe.
  • The ban will surely shape future conversations about gun control in the U.S.
Keep reading Show less