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Women's Rights In The Age Of The Arab Spring


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan, in Washington. Neal Conan is off. It's been a little over a year now since the birth of the Arab Spring, which was widely cheered on these shores for the triumph it represented of ordinary people standing up to corrupt autocracies and actually forcing a change in power. Those we saw on the streets were often described as thirsting for democracy.

But here's the question: Does that word apply if the governments that now emerge in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are led by men committed to creating an Islamic state bound by Sharia law?


We have seen elections already in Egypt. They were, by and large, considered clean, and they've resulted in Egypt's lower parliament now holding an Islamist majority. This could be very bad news for women's rights, certainly as they're understood in the West and as they're aspired to the East.

Divorce law, property rights, access to health care, these things could all be seriously compromised under strict Islamist rule, as we see already in Islamist states where this is true.

And yet what if that is what the majority of people vote for? What should the U.S. do about the role of women in Islamist governments? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation on our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our question to you, our listeners: What should the U.S. do about the role of women in Islamist governments? Later in the program, Teller, the quiet half of Penn and Teller, shares his secrets on magic and deception. But first, the role and the status of women in Islamist governments and under Islamist governments. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is a foreign correspondent for NPR who reported from Libya and from Egypt during the Arab Spring, and recently reported on the role of women in Egypt's parliamentary elections. She joins us now from Jerusalem. Lourdes, nice to have you back on the program.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Thank you. Nice to be back.


DONVAN: So we saw during the Arab Spring - particularly in Egypt, which was so widely televised. We saw it for ourselves. We saw men and women taking to the streets at Tahrir Square. But it appears from what I just reported on the election results in Egypt that they're - they didn't do equally in the balloting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, they didn't. In fact, they did extremely badly. And many of the women there considered it an enormous setback for Egyptian democracy, which is stunning, considering the very fact that we - that they had that revolution that - and free and fair elections.

And what we saw was 11 out of the 508 elected body were actually women. Four of those women had to be appointed. Only seven were actually elected. And none of those female candidates that were in the running were actually individual candidates, so party-less. So women who ran as not part of a party and ran on their own merit were simply not elected.

And so I think it's been a very chilling event for many women in the Arab world, and specifically, of course, in Egypt. And we've seen similar things take place in other parts, as well. I mean, Tunisia, a quarter of all seats are held by women, but they had a quota system put in place, and Egypt did not, and Libya looks like it's going in the same direction.

They have chosen or opted not to have a full quota system put in place. And so, therefore, many women's advocacy groups across the region feel that women need to be protected and their rights need to be protected, and that the best way of doing that is by having a quota system put in place while these democracies are still so nascent.

DONVAN: To get back to Egypt for just a moment and that election result you spoke about, where only 11 of 508 seats in the lower house of Parliament are held by women, and some of those even had to be appointed, was the election itself a fair, clean election from the point of view of the mechanics of the voting?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it depends what you mean by that. I mean, certainly, international monitoring groups like the Carter Center said that it was relatively free and fair. But when you look specifically at the issue of women, many women's groups noted that while women were put on the party lists, they were put quite far down on those lists. And so therefore, when their party got voted in, no women were actually voted in.

And so many women's groups felt that both Islamist and the liberal and secular parties just didn't promote women in their particular political groupings, and so therefore women just simply weren't represented.

But in terms of the actual balloting and what happened, I mean, people did say that it was the freest and fairest elections that had taken place for, you know, 50 years in Egypt.

DONVAN: So - and that's not for want of women trying to get onto the ballot in higher positions?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Certainly, there were many candidates. I mean, there weren't as many candidates as you would have hoped. You know, there were thousands upon thousands of people running in these elections, and a fraction of them were actually women, but they were represented, and there was a sense that women should be on the ballot.

But people didn't vote in, and when you talk to female activists - you know, I spoke to one woman there who's a female activist, and she went out canvassing and asked men and women from different social levels and different parts of Cairo if they would actually vote, for example, for a female president. A hundred percent of them said no. And she said this was...

DONVAN: Really, 100 percent?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A hundred percent. Not one single person said that they would vote for a female president in Egypt. And she said that that was enormously disappointing. So beyond all of the other issues at play here, whether women were put on the ballot boxes, whether, you know, the party lists were fair, they said that there is an actual cultural and ingrained sort of prejudice against women which has to be changed.

DONVAN: I want to go to some of our listeners now, who are standing by already. And I want to go to Carolyn in Anchorage, Alaska. Hi, Carolyn. You're on TALK OF THE NATION, joining me and Lourdes.

CAROLYN: Yes, good morning. This is Carolyn. I thank you very much for this topic. My thought is the only thing that we, as nations who don't believe in this way of approaching treatment of people, is through funding enhanced - funding from World Bank and from the U.S. that gives incentives, because from an economic standpoint, no nation can be sustained when they're up against nations that use all of their resources, not set aside 50 percent of their human resources. So to me, it's economics.

DONVAN: Yeah. All right, Carolyn, thanks very much for your call. And going beyond economics, I want to go a little bit, Lourdes, to the cultural issue, as well. And my question to you is this: Given that, as you say, in Egypt, the elections were the freest and fairest ever in anybody's memory - and I can see that you were saying the standard against which they were set was not very high - nevertheless, are we hearing that, given the chance to vote its impulses and its conscience that these countries are choosing to put women in this position, that given majority rule, majority rule doesn't have room for women?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think we need to be very careful. First of all, I think that this isn't simply a problem in the Middle East. You know, we just had the United Nations release a report where it ranked countries all over the world, and the Middle East, you know, was not remarkable in the fact that women are not represented in elected bodies.

You know, quite frankly, we've seen countries in many different parts of the world have that particular problem. And certainly, the United States doesn't rank particularly high, for example, in women members of Congress.

The two countries that have the highest, I think, representation of women, more than 50 percent, are Rwanda and Andorra. So, you know, we have to take this in context. But certainly, we're talking about the Middle East today, and there are specific issues involved in the Middle East.

And I think one of the issues, certainly speaking with women activists there, is they say: Listen. This was a free and fair election for the first time. We had women sort of coming out for the first time, and a lot of women haven't had the training. They haven't had the support, and so we need to sort of, over time, inculcate this idea that women can assume positions of power, that women can be in positions of authority, and that we can trust women in positions of authority.

And I think that is something that was really - really resonated across a lot of the different women's groups in Egypt. They really felt that this had to be a sort of grass-roots effort to train women, to get them out, to give them confidence and to have other people see them in positions of authority.

And I think people really did - now really do feel that it was a mistake not to have a quota, because having a quota system in place basically ensures that there's representation by women. And then once those women are in power, they have the background, they have - you know, they've had the - they've been exposed to being in power, and other people have seen them taking decisions. And so that will necessarily eventually mean that people will vote for them in future elections.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Seth from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Seth, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SETH: Yes, hi. What I'd like to point out is that in - you know, whereas I would really love to see more women involved in the government in the Arab Spring and in Tunisia and Egypt, what I'd like to point is that if we're truly to respect the democratic process and the sovereignty of these nations, we have to also respect that they will do this naturally through their own democratic process.

And down the road, you know, if they decide that the current government that they just elected in is not meeting the needs of the nation, then they will just not - they will elect them out of power.

And I do agree that a quota would have been helpful, but since it wasn't done, I think we need to respect the way this progresses democratically. (unintelligible)...

DONVAN: Seth, there's a lot of controversy actually going on at the moment about whether, in fact, democratic elections that democratically lead to the success at the polling place of Islamist parties ultimately is a step backwards because, not in every country, but in several countries where Islamist - that are already Islamist states, women are not doing very well. There are exceptions to that.

But there's a concern that allowing these parties into power through the process that we've encouraged, democracy, would actually result in a backfire for women.

SETH: But unfortunately for the United States, it's not really our say. It's their say. It's up to their own country. I mean, we can encourage. We can go through the U.N. We can certainly say what we want, but we're not Egypt. We're not Tunisia. We are not - we really don't have a say in how they do it. Otherwise, they're not a true democracy, they're under us. They're - we have to respect their sovereignty.

I mean, we can encourage, but they're not - we're not Egypt. We are not - we don't have a say. I mean, all we can do is tell them what we want, but we're not - we don't really have any power over them.

DONVAN: Lourdes, that sounds about right, does it not, in terms of...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, absolutely. I don't think you can question the fact that you can't dictate to another country what they should be doing, and I don't think that's the question. I mean, you know, many women - we're talking about women's groups within Egypt, within Tunisia, within Libya, that have problems with the way things have evolved.

But, you know, on a more hopeful note, many of these women's groups feel that now they're being galvanized because of the dreadful, you know, the way they characterize it, horrific turn of events for women and their representation in the new parliament.

And so I think there is now a feeling that they have to sort of do more in order to make their voices heard and to be represented more fairly. Of course, the huge concern, as you mention, is how the Islamist parties will play into that. We simply don't know at this point.

I mean, many of the - I mean, of the parties that have been elected into office - Ennahda in Tunisia and, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood Party in Egypt - have professed that they will protect women's rights.

DONVAN: All right, more about that when we come back from the break. We're talking about the role of women after the Arab Spring. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. With parliamentary elections behind them, Egyptian lawmakers are now focused on the process of writing a constitution. The first step is to pick 100 people who will have six months to create that constitution and to put it to a referendum.

The process bogged down over the weekend in a heated debate over the role of Islamists in drafting the constitution and essentially the question of how Islamic the country will be. Islamist parties won big in recent democratic elections in both Egypt and in Tunisia.

The outcome has really worried many women, who added their voices to last year's protests, and they're worried that they'll now find themselves left out, that women's personal and political rights will suffer in free and fair elections. What should the U.S. do about the role of women in Islamist governments?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, she covered the Arab spring from Libya and Egypt for NPR. And I'd also now like to bring into the conversation Liesl Gerntholtz, who is director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. And she watched an event in Libya, firsthand, going on the ground there, that involved a fascinating interaction, a fascinating exchange between a group of women activists and the men who now aspire to run Libya. Liesl, thanks very much for joining us.

And can you tell me about that moment that you witnessed?

LIESL GERNTHOLTZ: Thanks, John. I was at the first post-Gadhafi women's rights conference that took place in Tripoli in mid-November last year, and I think some of the things that happened there, including the event that you're referring to, really do illustrate the complexity of this debate because some of your listeners may remember that very soon after the declaration of Libya that was made after the fall of Tripoli, the then-chairperson of the National Transitional Council in, sort of, welcoming Libya's liberation spoke about some of the key issues.

And there he spoke about the reintroduction of polygamy, a practice that had actually been banned during Gadhafi's reign.

DONVAN: He wanted to bring it back?

GERNTHOLTZ: He wanted to bring it back and saying that, you know, it was an Islamist practice. And there was great outrage from many of the women. But at the same time, at this five-day conference where women really debated every possible issue that women in a newly liberated or free Libya are going to have to grapple with, there was almost no discussion about the role that Sharia law would play.

And that is simply because women in Libya, certainly the ones who attended the conference, and it was a fairly representative conference with women from the East and the West, women who had been in exile, women who had been in Libya during the 42 years of Gadhafi's reign, there was really a very broad consensus that in effect these women want Sharia law to be the basis of their new laws.

So I think that we also can't ignore the fact that, you know, Sharia is not necessarily being imposed on women, that women in many of these countries think that it's a really important aspect of their lives. But at the same time, the Libyan activists were very clear in their demands. Political participation is key for them. They feel that they have to have a role in the new government.

And they were quite strategic in their advocacy, I think, and they were able to get almost the entire National Transitional Council there on the Sunday of the conference. And, you know, it was a very powerful moment to see this group of women challenging what was largely a group of men about what the new government would look like, what role women would have and so on.

Again, it's been disappointing because at the conference, I think there was a clear commitment made to, sort of, including women in government. That has not, unfortunately, played itself out in the way that we'd hoped. So you have two women currently in cabinet, and they hold sort of traditionally the post that women hold, I think it's health and social affairs.

And a quota was proposed in the first draft of the electoral law, and that was taken out in favor of a modified (unintelligible) list, and again not to independent candidates.

DONVAN: So you're saying disappointing, some signs of hope but disappointing results so far in dealing with, again, a leader who initially, in one of his moments of triumph, talked about wanting to bring polygamy back to Libya.

And I want to bring to your attention, and I'm sure you're aware of this, a criticism of Human Rights Watch when it wrote about the region and wrote about its hopes for the region. Your executive director wrote in his introduction to an annual report this.

He said: The international community must come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference, which is saying, it seems to me, this is what the people chose, political Islam, and we have to just work with that.

And the critique is from - probably I would say from the left of Human Rights Watch, is there shouldn't be political Islam in government. And what about that? What about the position that Human Rights Watch's stance should actually be against the mixing of government and religion in the first place?

GERNTHOLTZ: Well, I think firstly your caller earlier sort of raised the obviously question, is where there are elections that seem on the whole to be free and fair and where the majority of citizens are able to participate in those elections, I don't think a human rights organization has any business then challenging the results of those elections.

And on that basis, as a mainstream human rights organization that is deeply committed to women's rights - we've had a women's rights division for the last 20 years, and we have challenged, not only cases where Islam is used as a tool to oppress women, but where other religions - for example we have a large body of work looking at how government sin Latin America have used - have allowed the Catholic Church to undermine women's reproductive rights and have blocked access to contraception and safe abortion and other reproductive health services.

So I think, you know, we have a long tradition of look at human rights violations, including in the name of religion, and I think that's what we will continue to do in the Middle East in these transitional countries.

But I don't think that it's our place to decide who should and shouldn't be in government.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Osama(ph) from Detroit, Michigan. Hi, Osama, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

OSAMA: Hi, good afternoon, thank you for having me.

DONVAN: Sure, you're on the air.

OSAMA: I'm actually in Egypt a few weeks ago, and I was kind of on an independent fact-finding mission. And we were actually looking for a lot of the same questions that are being discussed as far as women's rights and the currently elected parliament.

And actually on the first day that parliament was there, on January 23rd, we were actually there in the opening session of parliament, outside, and we were discussing some of these issues. And we kind of felt that there was a large degree of skepticism from many of the women activists that were there as far as change occurring in the system towards reforming women's rights and actually advancing women's rights and women's representation in parliament.

DONVAN: But Osama, but the aspirations were clearly there. They were not ambivalent about this. They knew what they wanted, and they're just concerned that it's not going to happen?

OSAMA: They were concerned that it's not going to happen at this initial point, and at times, it also felt that it was kind of a sacrifice for the greater establishment of a system from which they can work through to establish greater women's rights, women's freedoms, protection of women's rights in marriage and inheritance and all the topics that we hear about when it comes to women's rights and the Islamically inspired elections that take place.

DONVAN: All right, Osama, thanks very much for your comment and for the insight from coming just back from the region there. It's very much appreciated. I want to bring into the conversation now Isobel Coleman. She's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Isobel, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ISOBEL COLEMAN: Thank you, thanks for having me.

DONVAN: Sure. So we've been talking about the rights and the role of women in the Middle East after Arab spring, and you have written about this extensively. And the broadest question to you on this is: What should the U.S. do about the role of women in Islamist governments?

COLEMAN: Well, I think we should first recognize that in many respects, our influence is quite limited in these countries. You know, I hear all the time people saying how could the Obama administration allowed the Mubarak regime to fail. And I actually was in Egypt last January when the revolution started, and my counter to that is there was almost nothing the Obama administration I think could have done to have kept Mubarak in power when you have millions and millions of people on the streets.

Without using enormous violence, there was no way Mubarak was going to stay in power, and the United States wouldn't have sanctioned that, and...

DONVAN: Yeah, I mean, I think our other guests, and even the callers, are agreeing that direct influence is very limited.

COLEMAN: It is limited, and I think I - I was listening to the end of what Liesl was saying earlier - hello Liesl.

GERNTHOLTZ: Hello, Isobel.

COLEMAN: That the people have voted overwhelmingly across the region for Islam, for political Islam. And now the question is: What does that mean? And I think it's important to keep in mind that there is a very broad spectrum today, and it's getting broader by the minute, of how people in the region think about political Islam and what it actually means.

And women's rights are a very key marker for that evolution of thought: what role women can play in society. And I think the United States can play a role in saying look, if you're going to take a very narrow, very conservative view on women's rights, which means, as say the Salafis have done in Egypt, that they have said they don't agree on women participating in the political sphere. They did run women on their party list only because they had to. But instead of putting women's pictures on the list, they substituted a picture of a daisy because they don't believe that women should really participate in the public sphere.

DONVAN: You - and, Isobel, you wrote an article for Foreign Policy titled "Is Arab Spring Bad for Women?" And does that suggest some of what you're talking about? But more interesting than that, are you suggesting that in some places women were better off prior to the fall of the dictators?

COLEMAN: I don't think dictatorship is good for anybody. It's not good for men. It's not good for women. But the reality is that you did have dictatorial regimes that imposed women's rights, in some respects, on the people. And now, they're up for grabs. I mean, the people are saying, you know, we want to debate this. And you could see in some countries a rollback of specific women's rights.

In Egypt, you have personal status laws that have granted women some, you know, greater sense of equality within the family around very sensitive issues like divorce, custody, marriage, these types of things that touch people's everyday lives.

And I think you will see those laws being debated not only from the conservative Islamist groups. Not only do you have Al-Nour and other, you know, Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood saying that they want to overturn those laws, but you have members of some of the liberal parties saying the same thing. So I think it's almost inevitable you're going to see changes there.

DONVAN: Isobel, let's bring in Becky from Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, Becky. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

BECKY: Good afternoon. First of all, I want to say that I am a feminist, and I wholeheartedly support women's rights. However, as far as the question of what the United States should do, I think that there is already so much resentment against the United States in Arabic countries that if we tried to intervene on the behalf of women, that there might be a backlash, and women's rights could be associated with the evils of the West.

And also I took a course - a wonderful course - from a Turkish professor who was visiting at our university. And she very strongly stressed that she felt that the movement had to come from within, that the women in the Arabic countries themselves had to be the impetus behind this.

DONVAN: All right, Becky. Thanks very much for your comment. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News.

Lourdes, I just want to ask you, as you covered what happened in Libya and in Egypt, the comment that Isobel made that some of the secular - previously secular-ish autocracies actually had to impose women's rights on the population suggests that the population is not inherently disposed to let these rights live and breathe. And again, I come back to that question, well, if we allow for democratic elections, does that mean we're giving voice, essentially, to - at least in some places, are you seeing an anti-feminist or none pro-women's rights position being allowed to float in a society where, before, it was repressed?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John, I really have to take a little bit of umbrage with you, choosing the words allow for again. I think if you or anyone in Egypt or across the Middle East listen to those kinds of words, they would, you know...

DONVAN: Well, correct me then. Fix them for me.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am. I am. Simple because it is a point that has to be reiterated, I think, especially to the broader United States who - you know, we look at what happened there, and everyone is still trying to figure out what's going on. And one of the most exciting things about covering the Middle East, living in the Middle East, is really not knowing what's going to happen next.

And you came, you know, from a place here which was very moribund, and you kind of - it was very predictable. And now, you're seeing all these forces come into play. And it's not just women's rights that are being looked at now. It's minorities. It's all sorts of different things, and people are really re-assessing where they fit into the spectrum.

When we talk, again, about Sharia law, it's, you know, it's used as a catchphrase to mean all things worrisome - the imposition of religion and in politics. And I think Liesl made a very good point. You won't find anyone, I think, in Libya who doesn't believe that the basis of legislation should be Islam. And so they come from a different place.

But what happens is what is the interpretation going to be? It's all in the interpretation. And if you have a mix of, you know, civilian and religious ideology, how will that be interpreted in the legislation, and what practical effects will that have on people's lives?

And so the burden right now - and the very interesting thing right now - is the constitution. It will be the basis of legislation, which is why there's such an enormous fight in Egypt about who will partake in that process. And so women are looking very, very carefully at who will be there and how they will be able to influence what happens.

DONVAN: But to my basic question to all three guests because maybe - Lourdes, you're right - I'm not phrasing it correctly, but it seems straightforward to me. Are we in danger by allowing, through democratic elections, the rise of Islamist governments? Are we in danger of setting back women's rights because, prior to this, those movements were repressed. Now they're not repressed. We know they're not all friendly to women's rights, and now they could be in government. Is that bad for women? And whichever one of you would like to take that, but I'd just like to start with you, actually, Liesl Gerntholtz, about that.

GERNTHOLTZ: Well, again...

DONVAN: Or is it too complicated to say? I think that's maybe what Lourdes was saying.

GERNTHOLTZ: I - well, I think it is a very complicated situation because I think there are many interpretations of Islam, and I think there's a very interesting progressive school around sort of a feminist interpretation of Islam. But I think the question is really going back to really what you or those people who say, well, what are we going to do? How are we going to solve this problem? In many respects, it's not our problem to solve.

What we need to be doing is we need to be supporting the women in those countries because they are really the main actors who are going to need to find ways because, you know, even at the Libya conference, with the women there, while they were saying, of course, the basis of all law should be Sharia, they were also very clear about what they wanted for their rights. I mean, they want participation. They want laws protecting them from violence. They want laws that give them access to education and health care. So, you know, I - for me, I still see much that we should be hopeful about. But this is not a struggle that the U.S. can take on. This is a struggle that the U.N. had (unintelligible).

DONVAN: But it is in fact a struggle, is what you're saying. It's a...

GERNTHOLTZ: Again, I think Lourdes' point was very good, was well made. This is not a struggle that's unique to the Middle East. I mean, these are struggles that are happening in Europe. These are struggles that are happening in Africa and Latin America. I mean, there are a very few countries where women have full access to all state institutions. I mean, I think very few countries have a 50-50 representation.

DONVAN: All right. I want to thank you very much, Liesl Gerntholtz, for joining us. And...

GERNTHOLTZ: Thank you.

DONVAN: ...also, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, our NPR foreign correspondent joining us from Jerusalem and Isobel Coleman, who joined us from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Coming up: Tell. That's a term from poker. Magic has different language. But we're going to have something told by a man named Teller. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.