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Ensuring Opportunities 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 14, 2012
United Nations Association of the United Kingdom

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As the uprisings of the Arab Spring give way to the hard tasks of reconstruction and statebuilding, women's rights remain a divisive issue. Women have certainly played a prominent role in their countries' transitions. In Egypt, activists such as Esra Abdel Fattah and journalists including Shahira Amin have steered the public dialogue about what the uprisings mean and helped broadcast events around the world. In Yemen, Tawakkol Karman emerged as an iconic protest leader, providing critical momentum to the broader uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Libya, demonstrations by female relatives of prisoners outside the infamous Abu Salim prison sparked the uprising there. In Tunisia and across the region, women marched in the streets, camped out in squares and managed the distribution of food and supplies.

But as events have shown, women cannot take for granted that their activism will translate into political influence or legal gains in the emerging systems. Elections across the region have brought to power Islamists who hold conservative notions of women's role in society. Other entrenched power brokers like the military in Egypt and tribal leaders in Libya and Yemen have also excluded women from decisionmaking positions during this time of transition.

Much is at stake in ensuring women's rights in the reconstituted Arab states. In many ways, the protection of women's rights is a critical bellwetherof countries' broader commitment to pluralism. How women fare will be an important marker of whether religious and ethnic minority groups can expect equal citizenship under the new systems and whether freedom of speech and religion will be respected.

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