Women among the biggest losers in Arab Spring

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Egypt ranked lowest in a new poll of women's rights in the Arab world, seeing a significant spike in sexual harassment rates. The study found the recent political changes in the region had failed to improve the status of women.


Over the past decade, the Arab world has witnessed the ouster of dictators and the introduction of some form of democracy in many countries, but it has not improved the status of women in the region. In fact, women have been some of the biggest losers in nascent Arab democracies, according to a poll published Tuesday.

A survey of 22 Arab states by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found three of the five Arab Spring countries – Egypt, Syria and Yemen – at the bottom rung of the women’s rights listing.

Egypt ranked lowest in the listing, with the highest rates of violence against women – including sexual harassment and female genital mutilation (FGM).

Two years after Egyptian women joined their male counterparts on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in other cities to demand the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, women have borne the brunt of discriminatory laws and endured a spike in sexual assault, the study found.

In Iraq, women’s freedoms have regressed since the 2003 US-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the poll showed. Iraq ranked second-worst after Egypt, followed by Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

Comoros – an archipelago in the Indian Ocean – ranked first in the poll listing.

Women hold 20 percent of ministerial positions in Comoros, a former French colony.  Contraception is also widely accepted and supported by state-run education campaigns, while property is usually awarded to women after divorce or separation, experts said.

The poll by Thomson Reuters' philanthropic arm surveyed 336 gender experts in August and September in 21 Arab League states and Syria, which was a founding member of the Arab League but was suspended in 2011.

Questions were based on provisions of the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which 19 Arab states have signed or ratified.

Egypt scores poorly in almost all gender markers

Egypt scored badly in almost all categories, with 99.3 percent women and girls experiencing sexual harassment. Furthermore, an alarming 91 percent of Egypt’s female population is subjected to female genital mutilation, according to UNICEF.

Respondents of the Thomson Reuters Foundation poll also cited high rates of forced marriage and trafficking in Egypt.

“There are whole villages on the outskirts of Cairo and elsewhere where the bulk of economic activity is based on trafficking in women and forced marriages,” Zahra Radwan, Middle East and North Africa programme officer for the US-based Global Fund for Women, told Reuters.

Since the 2011 uprising, there has been a marked increase in sexual harassment in public places in the world’s most populous Arab nation.

"The social acceptability of everyday sexual harassment affects every woman in Egypt regardless of age, professional or socio-economic background, marriage status, dress or behavior,” Noora Flinkman from HarassMap, a Cairo-based anti-harassment rights group, told Reuters.

“It limits women’s participation in public life. It affects their safety and security, their sense of worth, self-confidence and health.”

Affluence has largely not benefitted Saudi women

While poverty and poor education levels have disproportionately affected women in Egypt, affluence without legal reforms has not necessarily improved their lot in some of the wealthier Arab nations.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers, ranked third-worst, according to the poll.

A conservative Gulf kingdom where Wahhabism – an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran – is the official faith, Saudi Arabia has been described as “the world’s largest women’s prison,” in a leaked US diplomatic cable.

In recent weeks, Saudi women shot into the international headlines when they attempted to protest a ban on women’s driving.

While change is slow to come in Wahhabi kingdom, experts noted some advances due to cautious reforms pushed by King Abdullah. Saudi women today have more employment opportunities and a greater public voice with 30 women appointed to the 150-member Shura Council, the nearest thing Saudi Arabia has to a parliament. But the council has no legislative or budgetary powers in the kingdom.

The state’s official guardianship system continues to trap Saudi females with women banned from working, traveling abroad, or opening a bank account without permission from a male relative.

War brings rape, torture and misery for Syrian women

The effects of the Arab uprising on women were the starkest in Syria, where a brutal civil war has left more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced, according to UN figures.

Rights groups say forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have targeted women with rape and torture, while hardline Islamists have stripped them of rights in rebel-held territory.

“The Syrian woman is a weapon of war, subjected to abductions and rape by the regime and other groups,” a Syrian women’s rights campaigner told Reuters.

In Libya, ranked 14th for women's rights, experts voiced concern over the spread of armed militias and a rise in kidnapping, extortion, random arrests and physical abuse of women. They said the 2011 uprising that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi had failed to enshrine women's rights in law.

Even in Tunisia – the birthplace of the 2011 uprisings and a country that has led the way in Arab women’s rights for decades – polygamy is spreading and inheritance laws are biased towards men.

Nevertheless the former French colony ranked best among Arab Spring nations, with women holding 27 percent of seats in national parliament.

Almost three years after popular uprisings toppled dictators in one of the most conservative corners of the world, entrenched patriarchal structures continue to hamper Arab women.

In some cases, the declining security situation and rise of Islamist parties have seen rollbacks in women’s rights.

But while the situation is dire, some activists saw reasons for optimism, noting that the revolts have increased an awareness of their rights among poor and marginalised women.

"We used to suffer from the fact that talk of women's rights came across as talk ... limited to the creme-de-la-creme ladies of society," Nihad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights told Reuters.

"But the big challenge women faced led to women's issues being discussed on the street by ordinary women and illiterate women."

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