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M A Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
third of what their male coun-
terparts made.
The situation was worse in
Egypt and Syria, where the eco-
nomic position of women slipped
every year from 2006 to 2010.
And ever since the inception of
the WEF Gender Gap Report,
Yemen has consistently ranked
at the bottom. Most Yemeni
women remain illiterate and have
very limited opportunities, with many living in confined
Cautious Optimism
A year after the Arab Spring began, the picture for
women is mixed. In Tunisia, the birthplace of the
movement, all major political parties in the newly
elected Constituent Assembly have pledged to uphold
women’s rights, including the Islam-based Ennahda.
With an electoral system that requires parties to alter-
nate between male and female candidates, 30 percent
of assembly members are women. Four of the six com-
mittees drafting the new constitution are headed by
Yet even in this atmosphere of cautious optimism,
the women of Tunisia have told us that the world must
remain vigilant. Only three out of 41 transitional cabi-
net posts went to women, and none were in key de-
partments. There have been several worrying instances
of unofficial segregation by sex in universities, movie
theatres and even polling places.
As Tunisians work to balance their secular govern-
ment traditions with the democratic wishes of a con-
servative society, women elsewhere in the region are
battling for core civil rights. In other countries in the
region, many of the best-organized political forces are
apathetic or even openly hostile to women’s rights and
No one knows whether conservative forces, especially
in Egypt, will begin using their new powers to restrict
women’s participation across society. For example, after
the protests ended, Egypt’s transitional military council
simply excluded women from the decision-making
Egyptian women witnessed the power of collective
action in Tahrir Square, and so last year thousands of
activists — from across the po-
litical, ideological and religious
spectra — gathered to write the
charter that distilled the core de-
mands of Egyptian women:
equal political, economic and
legal citizenship. They hope this
powerful document will rally
others as they lobby to enshrine
equal citizenship into Egypt’s
new constitution.
In Yemen, the exit of President Ali Abdullah Saleh
was negotiated among men representing the political
opposition and the country’s Arab neighbors. Women
and youth, who had been so essential to the popular
movement, were excluded. With the election of the
new president, the situation remains delicate; a security
crisis could instigate further political, economic and so-
cial marginalization of women and youth.
Hopes for Libya’s future are high, but the challenges
are great; Moammar Qadhafi spent decades systemati-
cally destroying his country’s core institutions. The re-
bellion was led by volunteers, who are working to
rebuild the basic institutions of the state. So far, the
Transitional National Council has given women only a
very small role in the formal transition process.
Even so, women have seized their new freedoms to or-
ganize outside of government. They are effective civil so-
ciety leaders, working with local councils and the national
government, addressing the crucially important needs of
a post-conflict society, including providing basic civics ed-
ucation to fellow citizens, and developing and lobbying
for real solutions to the disarming, demobilization and
reintegration of former rebels. In Syria, women are play-
ing important roles in keeping the protest movement alive
to counter the regime’s wanton violence.
Women who long for progress in each of these coun-
tries are realistic about the challenges they confront.
They understand that changing deeply held cultural and
religious norms will take a generation, but this is an un-
dertaking that they willingly accept. They seek our con-
sistent, strong support of efforts to retain and expand
their rights and participation.
Although women’s empowerment is often viewed as
a secondary priority in times of transition, it is precisely
at these times that women can play a crucial role. Their
involvement can ensure an enduring peace and a con-
“The women of the Arab
Spring have come alive, and
they will not go back to sleep.”
— Tawakkol Karman,
Yemeni Nobel Laureate