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Is the Arab Spring Bad for Women?

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
December 20, 2011
Foreign Policy


In many ways, 2011 has been the Year of the Arab Woman. From the earliest days of upheaval that started in Tunisia last December, women have been on the front lines of protest, leading public demonstrations, blogging passionately, covering the unrest as journalists, launching social media campaigns, smuggling munitions, and caring for the wounded. This month, when Tawakkol Karman became the first Arab woman to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, she gave an enthusiastic shout-out to her many Arab sisters who have struggled "to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men."

Across the region, though, Arab women are grumbling that overthrowing dictators is proving easier than overturning the pervasive supremacy of men. Gamila Ismail, a prominent Egyptian activist and politician, summed it up when she quit Egypt's parliamentary race in disgust after learning that she would be put third on the list in her district -- not a winning position. "We women had a very important role before, during, and after the revolution, and it does not work for us today, to accept this," she complained in a television interview. (She ran and narrowly lost as an independent candidate.) In Tunisia, disgruntled women activists have formed the October 24 Front to defend women's rights in the aftermath of the Islamists' electoral victory there. "We want a constitution that respects women's rights and doesn't roll back the advances we've made," said one Tunisian protester.

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