Iran, Women’s Rights and the Arab Spring

For each woman that is imprisoned, another will take her place and swell the ranks of the women’s movement. –Shrine Ebadi, Iranian Noble Peace Prize winner, 2004.

The stories of sweeping reform across the Middle East has captured the attention of many of us. In this week’s Weekly Rights Podcast, Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, talks to the Campaign about the effect that Arab Spring has had, and will have, on women. She talks about her new book, The Unfinished Revolution, which is a collection of women’s stories of struggle and defiance from around the world. Her book includes essays from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and women’s rights activist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign Sussan Tahmasebi, who discuss the status of women in Iran. Minky also discusses the role of women in the protests and uprisings in Iran, and how they have affected women in the Arab Spring.

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran – Podcast 49: Women in Iran with Minky Worden.

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Can Islamism and Feminism Mix?

by Monica Marks

26 October 2011

TINY Tunisia, where a fruit seller’s suicide sparked the Arab Spring, held its first free elections on Sunday. Over 90 percent of registered voters turned out, far exceeding expectations. Lines of beaming blue-fingered voters poured out of polling places, proudly posting photos of their freshly inked hands on Facebook.

Yet despite Tunisia’s election day success story, many observers fear that democracy could unleash an Islamist tidal wave. The Islamist party Ennahda, banned as a terrorist group under the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Aliwon approximately 40 percent of votes — a resounding plurality.

A small but increasingly vocal minority of secular Tunisians are predicting that an Islamist-dominated national assembly will reverse key pieces of civil rights legislation, including those recognizing the right to abortion and prohibiting polygamy.

Tunisia’s secular feminists, many of whom are urban admirers of French-style secularism, see Ennahda women as unwitting agents of their own domination. Although Ennahda openly supports Tunisia’s 1956 Code of Personal Status — arguably the most progressive piece of women’s rights legislation in the Arab world — its critics accuse the party as a whole of purveying a “double discourse,” adopting a soft, tolerant line when speaking to francophone secularists but preaching a rabidly conservative message when addressing its rural base.

Rather than developing strong platforms of their own, secular opposition parties like Ettajdid have focused their campaign efforts almost exclusively on fear mongering, raising the specter of an Iranian-style Islamist takeover and the imposition of Shariah, the legal code of Islam. Daniel Pipes and other Western commentators have joined the fray, urging Washington to stand against the “blight” of Ennahda and labeling Islamism “the civilized world’s greatest enemy.”

But it is far too early to sound such alarms. As a result of their active participation in party politics, Ennahda women actually stand to gain more from Sunday’s election than any other group.

In May, Tunisia passed an extremely progressive parity law, resembling France’s, which required all political parties to make women at least half of their candidates. As a long-repressed party, Ennahda enjoyed more credibility than other groups. It also had a greater number of female candidates to run than any other party, and strongly supported the parity law as a result.

Many Tunisian women developed a political consciousness in reaction to Mr. Ben Ali’s severe oppression of Ennahda in the 1990s. While their husbands, brothers and sons were in jail — often for reasons as simple as attending dawn prayers — these women discovered that they had a personal stake in politics and the strength to stand alone as heads of families. When the party was legalized in March, it found a widespread base of public sympathy and grass-roots support.

As the big winner in Sunday’s elections, Ennahda will send the largest single bloc of female lawmakers to the 217-member constituent assembly. The question now is how Ennahda women will govern. Are they unwitting dupes of Islamic patriarchy, or are they merely feminist activists who happen to wear head scarves?

After interviewing 46 female activists and candidates from Ennahda, I found that many turned to politics after experiencing job discrimination, arrests, or years in prison merely because they chose to wear the head scarf or because their families were suspected of Ennahda sympathies. For some of them, this election is as much about freedom of religious expression as anything else.

“I have a master’s degree in physics but I wasn’t allowed to teach for years because of this,” said a 43-year-old woman named Nesrine, tugging the corner of her floral-print hijab, a veil banned under Mr. Ben Ali but legalized since his departure. According to Mounia Brahim and Farida Labidi, 2 of the 13 members of Ennahda’s Executive Council, the party welcomes strong, critical women in its ranks. “Look at us,” Ms. Brahim said. “We’re doctors, teachers, wives, mothers — sometimes our husbands agree with our politics, sometimes they don’t. But we’re here and we’re active.”

These women are not likely to oppose women’s rights legislation. Ennahda women are, first and foremost, Tunisians. They are well educated, and their brand of Islamism, like Tunisian society as a whole, is relaxed and comparatively progressive. Since the 1950s, Tunisian women have enjoyed greater legal protections than their counterparts in other Arab states.

Tunisians are currently seeking to reconcile this legacy of largely French-inspired civil rights policies with the aspirations of a devout public. Ennahda’s challenge lies in striking the right balance.

To do so, the party has explicitly declared that it will emulate Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., which has cracked down on corruption, involved women as equal political partners, and delivered stunning economic growth rates.

Replicating this model of moderation and pious prosperity will be hard work in Tunisia, a country with staggering levels of unemployment and 25 percent illiteracy. Turkish-style democracy may look less progressive in Tunis — where angry protests recently broke out at a screening of the film “Persepolis” — than in Istanbul, where bars and dance clubs dot the city’s streets.

And there is a chance, of course, that democratic gains for women could be reversed. As history has shown in America, France, Algeria and Iran, revolutionary movements don’t always lead to greater gender equality or more inclusive politics. Women often fight fearlessly in such liberation struggles only to be sidelined when new national governments form.

Tunisian women, however, are well poised to avoid this fate. Tunisia has done an excellent job of including women in its transitional institutions thus far. This is especially true when viewed in comparison with Egypt, where the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces recently banned women from heading any party lists.

Ennahda has thus far used its newfound political heft to stimulate rather than stifle women’s participation in Tunisian politics. Its activists are presenting a potentially more accessible model of “Islamist feminism” to many rural and socially conservative Tunisian women than that of secularist parties.

Vocal, active, and often veiled, they are comfortable with the language of piety and politics. Despite the fear mongering of secular skeptics and Western pundits, their actions and aspirations are far more reminiscent of Turkey’s A.K.P. than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Monica Marks is a doctoral student in Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University.

Feminist Association of Tunisian Women

There women from all over the world at the Commission on the Status of Women, which is presently taking place in New York. Both governmental and non-governmental delegations are present at this UN sponsored event. We used this opportunity to find out a little more about the situation of women’s rights and women’s rights activists in other countries. The following is an interview with two women’s rights activists from Tunisia, Dr. Khadija Arfaoui and Usra Farwes, who are working with the Feminist Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development.

Q: What is the legal situation of women in your country?

Well Tunisia has one of the most progressive laws when it comes to women, as compared with the rest of the Arab world. Our laws are both secular and also some are based on Sharia law. We have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But, of course that ratification is with reservations on 3 issues, which include articles 8, 9 and 15. For the most part women have equal rights with men. There are a few issues which are problematic. One is the right to pass on nationality. Women are allowed to pass on their nationality to their children, but only with the stated permission of their husbands. And women are not allowed to marry non-Muslims, but marriages that occur outside of Tunisia are recognized in Tunisia, so women who want to marry non-Muslim men do so outside the country. The other issue of concern is one of inheritance, where women inherit less than men and this is problematic.

Q: In Iran too women inherit at half the amount of their brothers (when they are inheriting from their parents) and wives inherit 1/8 of the assets of their husbands, excluding land. Though new legislation has recently been passed in the parliament to allow for women to inherit land from their husbands and we are hoping that this legislation will be approved. Is it the same in Tunisia?

In Tunisia, women inherit land and there are no restrictions in this respect. But our law on inheritance is based on Sharia law and like Iran, when inheriting from their parents, female children inherit half of male children (or 1/3 to the female and 2/3 to male). Women inheriting from their husbands women inherit 1/8th of his assets. Our organization is involved in addressing this inequality and we are seeking equal rights for women to inheritance.

Q: In Iran women are working to change laws that discriminate against women, including equal rights in marriage, right to divorce and right for child custody and guardianship. One of the demands of women’s rights activists is an end to polygamy. How prevalent is the practice of Polygamy in your country? Is it legal?

Polygamy was abolished in 1956, at the same time that Tunisia gained independence. Currently polygamy and temporary marriage are not allowed under the law, and in fact if a man marries a second wife, he faces jail. Women and men have equal rights in marriage as well. In 1993 the law was changed to ensure that both men and women have equal rights in marriage. Before that the law required that women obey their husbands, but with its change in 1993, both men and women are obliged to obey each other. Women also have the right to divorce and custody and guardianship of their children. Also the legal age of marriage is 18 for both boys and girls.

Q: Tell us about what you are planning for International Women’s Day Celebrations in your country?

We are planning a conference on women. We are also holding a workshop to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our organization. And we will be launching our website.

Q: Do you plan to hold any public events, like a protest or a march?

No street protests need authorization and even if we request a permit we will not be issued one. The government fears public protests and so they do not allow for it. If we go out in the street without a permit, our protest will end in police violence. We recently held one protest in support of Gaza and to object to the killings that were taking place there. There was a lot of public outcry about the situation of Gaza in our country, so the authorities had no choice but to issue a permit for our protest, but the whole time, the protesters were surrounded by police. At the same time the government sent organizations that are affiliated with the government to our protest and instead of chant our slogan in support of Gaza, they began chanting slogans in support of the president and his bid for re-election. Our President has been in office for 20 years and now he wants to run for office again, despite the fact that when he was elected, he claimed that there should be term limits for Presidents. Anyhow, these government protesters chanted slogans like: “We want to elect our president to office again.”

Q: It sounds like you are working in a difficult security environment. What is the situation in your country with NGOs?

The situation of NGOs in our country is very difficult. There is a lot of pressure on activists and on NGOs and the police can storm the offices of NGOs at any given time. But we believe that our work is important and we continue. Interesting for you may be the fact that we had a meeting with Shirin Ebadi in our NGO when she was in Tunisia.

Q. I told you that women in Iran are fighting for their legal rights. I work with a national campaign that seeks to change all laws that discriminate against women. It’s called the One Million Signatures Campaign. Have you heard of the Campaign?

Yes we have heard of the Campaign. We get all the news related to the Campaign through different international email lists on women. In fact, when your colleague Khadijeh Moghaddam was arrested and we read the news, we took the initiative to translate the news into French and share it with our colleagues in French speaking countries and in Tunisia. We are shocked that women in Iran go to prison for simply asking for their basic rights.

Q. Have you ever had any women’s rights activists imprisoned in your country?

Not for the demand of equal rights, certainly not. But we have had some women in the south of Tunisia who have been engaged in demonstrations for several months. These mothers have protested lack of employment opportunities for their children. One woman’s rights activist who was a supporter of this group was placed in detention for 4 months. Her name is Zakia Dhifaoui. She is free now. We really commend all of you working with the Campaign and for women’s equal rights in Iran and we hope that you know that we will support you in whatever way possible.

Thanks for your time and your support.