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Women’s Rights in the New Islamist States

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
June 2012
McKinsey & Company


The revolutions unfolding across the Arab world have not only upended long-standing secular, authoritarian dictatorships; the new political systems emerging are bringing long-suppressed Islamist parties to the forefront. In Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary election, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with more conservative Salafist parties, won more than 70 percent of the seats. In June 2012, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi captured Egypt's presidency. In Tunisia, Al Nahda, the largest Islamist party, won over 40 percent of the seats in parliament, making it the leading party in the new government. These results are not surprising: Islam is the cultural touchstone for most Arabs, and polls consistently show large majorities across the Arab world support sharia—Islamic law—as the basis of legislation. Indeed, a 2012 Gallup poll found Arab women as likely as men to favor sharia as a source of law.

Many, however, worry that the political ascendency of Islamist groups will set women's rights back, as happened with the triumph of Islamic theocracy in Iran. Under the Shah, women in Iran enjoyed a relatively expansive set of legal rights, but those rapidly deteriorated with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the name of Islam, Khomeini rolled back women's legal status, significantly reduced their family rights, and set the marriage age for girls at 9 (it has since been adjusted to 13). For more than thirty years, women in Iran have been struggling to regain lost legal ground.

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