With International Women's Day only hours behind us, there's a debate brewing about whether women are getting left behind as the democratic movements they've played a substantial role in sweep the Arab world. The question came into sharp relief on Tuesday when women in Egypt organized a "Million Woman March" to demand equality, more say in constitutional reform, and more representation in the government, only to draw far fewer than a million women and clash verbally and physically with a group of men.
On Wednesday, the Kuwaiti legislature passed a bill granting working women more rights. Pregnant women, for example, will now be able to take a fully paid 70-day leave to deliver their babies and another partially paid four-month leave once their babies are born. On the same day, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, suggested lifting the Islamic kingdom's prohibition on women driving cars. Ending the ban, however, would require the consent of the country's top religious scholars, who practice a strict form of Islam.
Do these developments represent significant change, and is more ahead for women in the Arab world? In Kuwait, women already have the right to vote and run for office--hard-won victories that came in 2005. Ulf Laessing at Reuters points out that activists in Saudi Arabia have pressed King Abdullah to allow women to participate for the first time in upcoming municipal elections, but the ruler has yet to demonstrate an appetite for political reforms.
Isobel Coleman at the Council on Foreign Relations tells Bloomberg that the relatively secular, authoritarian regimes that recently fell in Egypt and Tunisia actually boasted some of the most progressive laws affecting women in the region. If Islamist groups gain more power in the new governments, she says in a separate interview with Voice of America, "women's rights will be a very clear litmus test of whether [the governments] are finding compatibility between Islam and democracy or not." Shadi Hamid at Brookings argues that there isn't consensus about the role women should play in Arab society and women's rights are often perceived as a Western concept, according to Voice of America.
If the Middle East uprisings are to amount to more than "half revolutions," the Christian Science Monitor says in an editorial, male and female attitudes must change, and "that starts with showing women that granting their rights is good for them--for their economic freedom, their self-worth, their safety. Many women privately endorse greater freedoms, but hesitate to lobby publicly for them. They fear they may bring shame on their families." Many "enlightened men and women" believe the Koran sanctions gender inequality, the Monitor adds, but some feminist scholars of Islam now disagree and some Muslim countries have elected female leaders.