True Middle Eastern democracy requires female leaders

Ikram Toumi and Olfa Hamdi

In the wake of the movements that led to the Arab Spring, one might ask: What does it take for countries like Tunisia and Egypt to fail in establishing democratic and sustainable systems?

To answer, we believe that the first and most prominent reason for failure is the stigmatization of women and their absence from the democracy-building process.

While the importance of women’s roles in the post-revolution building of freedom may seem obvious, in reality, it is often not acted upon. Women in the Middle East and North Africa still face considerable obstacles that prevent them from being active members of society who can participate in building new democracies.

Economic and institutional obstacles like poverty and lack of education are universal problems that women of the region share with others worldwide. Some obstacles, however, are related to the region’s cultural and religious characteristics.

Muslim culture and customs dictate very strong patriarchal doctrines that lead women to perceive themselves as inferior to men. Indeed, this fatal inferiority complex has shaped both women’s and men’s views of politics and of women’s roles in political life. The common sense presumptions in the region grant men the majority say in decision making. “Women in many countries in the region are seen as less capable than men. Some women themselves believe this, and the belief has passed through generations,” Dina Samir, an Egyptian journalist residing in Austin, said. For this reason, we see many women vote against other women solely on the basis of those candidates’ gender. Sadly, women make up only 2 percent of the newly elected Egyptian parliament. In Tunisia, only 28 percent of the elected constitutional assembly members are women, even when the constitutional assembly itself has enacted a rule calling for parity between men and women in all electoral lists.

The relationship between women and religion remains a strong barrier to women's empowerment. In Muslim countries in general, and in the Middle East in particular, the issue of women’s emancipation is inextricably linked with religion. The perimeter of the debate has always been established by religious principles, which blocks discussion or elaboration. In fact, the use of religion for political gains by politically engaged Islamists, from moderates to extremists, has made it nearly impossible for women to assert their equality with men.

Since the first day they started being active in the public sphere, the leaders of Ennahdha, an Islamic Tunisian party, have been promoting the idea of women being complementary to men rather than equal. They have attempted to include this "principle" in the new Tunisian Constitution in order to enable the promulgation of a number of discriminatory laws against women

Tunisian women have on more than one occasion fought fiercely against such projects and have tried to preserve existing rights protected by the 1956 Code of Personal Status, a progressive code protecting women’s rights ranging from the prohibition of polygamy to family laws giving privilege to women.

Finally, there are those who still limit this fight to achieving only constitutional equality with men. While this is a considerable achievement, in the absence of a checks and balances system the interpretation of new constitutions and laws can be risky. Conformity through legislation to the principles on non-discrimination against women is one of the first steps to be taken in the process of fostering female empowerment in the Arab Spring countries. As Tunisian women and graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, we believe in the importance of educating the public in the region about existing laws affecting gender issues and of women’s right to be active democracy builders. Education and social activism are the key to bridging the gaps between legislation and practice.

We also believe that opportunities exist to achieve a true and visible representation of women in high-level decision-making positions in the public and private spheres. Within the political sphere, women have proven to be able to do more than heading the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, a government department that should be meaningless once women reach equality with men. Indeed, there is no such ministry in any Western democracy.

Ultimately, unless women take on defined, visible roles in the social, economic and political spheres, the Arab Spring cannot lead to true democracy.

Hamdi is a masters engineering student and Toumi is a doctoral candidate for media studies. Both writers are from Tunisia.