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Guest Thinkers

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.


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