Women, the Islamist Moment and Us

11/01/2012 22:38 GMT | Updated 12/03/2012 09:12 GMT

"I have never been so worried about women's freedom as I am now. The threat is everywhere - on what women wear, how they think. If you are not with them (Islamists), they will insult you, harass you." - Saida Garrach, a lawyer and activist in the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women.

"The Islamist moment has arrived", warns Adam Shatz in London Review of Books. And that means that democratic western leaders and activists now face a fiendishly difficult challenge: how to encourage stable transitions to democracy in young societies that are stumbling out of the rubble of dictatorship, mired in poverty, with weak democratic traditions, but with Islamists of various stripes wielding decisive influence in both legislatures and civil society.

So, what are our red-lines? The temptation for western policy-makers is to limit themselves to just two - persuading the Islamists to respect the democratic rules of the game and to eschew violence.

Each is vital, of course, but western governments and civil society should have a third red-line: the protection and extension of women's rights. To insist upon women's empowerment is not a case of orientialism or cultural imperialism, and nor is it to endorse the spurious notion of a 'clash of civilisations.'

It is the key to making the transition to democracy work, in the Middle East or anywhere else. It is the right thing to do. And the smart thing.

It is right because to accept a quid pro quo - you embrace non-violence and we will turn a blind eye to your treatment of women - is not only to condemn women to a future of oppression, but to condemn the democratic transitions per se to stall in poverty and extremism.

It is smart because women's equality is close to being a policy silver bullet. From a raft of research we know that every good that we desire as democrats correlates with women's empowerment. Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet stated in 2011 that "Ending extreme poverty and hunger, improving women's and children's health, combating AIDS, and ensuring universal education all depend in large part on the progress that is made by and for women and girls."

The subjugation of women is still the most important global social inequality. It sears deepest into experience, molds political cultures most decisively, and determines both individual life-chances and global development. For all the hysterical talk of a 'clash of civilizations' it is actually the fight for women's equality and empowerment, across the globe, that is the world-historical struggle to be won.

And nowhere is the relationship between development, democracy and women's equality clearer than in the Arab world.

In 2005 the respected United Nations Arab Human Development Report concluded that women's empowerment was one of three decisive changes that are required, alongside good governance and a culture of knowledge, to encourage the development of societies across the Arab world. "In public life, cultural, legal, social, economic and political factors impede women's access to education, health, job opportunities, citizen's rights and representation", it reported, identifying a lack of power as the critical factor: "In all cases...real decisions in the Arab world are, at all levels, in the hands of men."

We need to face some depressing facts about the Arab Spring and develop a robust policy response. While the Arab Spring has opened up opportunities for women in the long-term, in the short-term the google-generation has - for now, at least - been pushed aside by the hard men of the military and the long-established Islamist parties. And as a result, women's rights are under threat.

Take Libya. The leader of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, used Liberation Day to announce that laws contradicting sharia would be annulled. When he pointed out that this meant polygamy would be made legal, he drew "cheers and celebratory gunfire from the mostly male crowd."

Take Egypt, where women played a central role in the Tahrir Square protests that toppled Mubarak. The YouTube images of a woman protestor being half-stripped and stamped on by a group of soldiers shocked the world. Women protestors have been humiliated by so-called 'virginity tests' - in reality, sexual assaults - by the Egyptian military. Not a single woman has been appointed to the constitutional committee. There are plans to revise a raft of legislation that underpins women's rights in Egypt.

Even in Tunisia, where Ennahda - the Islamist victors in recent elections - have promised to respect the old relatively progressive family code, women activists fear a 'double discourse' is being used by the Islamists to play for time. Reporter Marie-Louise Gumuchan cites 30-year-old Houda Ben Zid, an insurance worker: "Ennahda cannot make any threats now because everyone will turn against them. But they could do something later. Our way of life could be threatened."

We will need to proceed carefully. First, there is a wave of anti-western feeling to overcome - we backed the autocrats for decades and that will not be easily forgotten. Second, there is a suspicion of feminism itself in many parts of the Arab world, not just because of a deep-seated patriarchy but also because the old women's movements were often state-run and led by the wives of the autocrats, such as Egypt's Suzanne Mubarak, Tunisia's Leila Ben Ali, Syria's Asma al-Assad and Jordan's Queen Rania. The Islamists exploit this by talking of legislation protecting women's rights as 'Suzanne's Laws' - an alien 'western' implant. But the essence of democracy is the all, not the few, and that means securing the dignity of girls and women as well as men.

Of course, no external agency can simply impose progress; and there are no quick fixes - two of the neo-conservative errors. But there is so much we can do. In the words of the political theorist Michael Walzer, the state has one role and civil society another.

States can use diplomacy and conditionality to exert "steady pressure on behalf of political decency and a sustained critique of brutality and repression". Civil society can seek a different kind of influence: "non-coercive, dependent on persuasion, and slow enough in its effects to allow the "other people" time to consider and reconsider what they are doing." Sometimes the quiet word can have more impact than the lecture.

But make no mistake, while democrats cannot impose equality, neither can they extend a free pass to those who oppress women. We must be determined to respond urgently to the chant of the brave Egyptian men and women who protested the brutal beatings of women by the military. "The women of Egypt are a red line", they shouted. Western policy-makers and activists, each in their own way, should echo that.

For us too, the women should be a red line.