The changing face of women’s political participation in the Middle East

The barriers to women’s political participation in the Middle East have long preoccupied scholars and analysts. The Arab uprisings of early 2011 disrupted virtually every dimension of Arab politics and societies, forcing a systematic reevaluation of many long-held political science theories and assumptions. The place of women in politics and the public sphere was no exception.

The divergent experiences of the Arab uprisings and their aftermath have allowed political scientists to take a fresh look at many of these important questions. New data sources and a diversity of cases have energized the community of scholars focused on women’s public political participation. A workshop of the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) brought together an interdisciplinary group of more than a dozen such scholars in March to critically examine these questions. The complete collection is available to be downloaded free here.

Women were highly visible participants in the Arab uprisings of 2011, from the demonstrators on the front lines of Tahrir Square in Cairo to Nobel Peace Prize-winner Tawakkol Karman, the face of the revolution in Yemen. Women’s physical participation in those protests, as Sherine Hafez has observed, became a major point of contention, with narratives of emancipation clashing with experiences of mass public sexual harassment and the gendered exercise of state violence in the form of “virginity tests.”

The transitions that followed those uprisings posed particularly fierce challenges to women. The early electoral successes of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia drove many feminists, liberals and Western media platforms to voice concern that the new governments would diminish women’s rights and limit political freedoms. Those fears, as Ellen McLarney documents, escalated with the bitterly contentious negotiations over new constitutions.

Many advocates feared that other laws protecting women’s rights, particularly within the family, might also be changed. Autocratic regimes strategically supported certain initiatives that – at least superficially – advanced women’s rights. In Egypt, as Mervat Hatem notes, former first lady Suzanne Mubarak formed the National Council for Women in 2000 that helped pass several laws increasing women’s and girls’ rights in the following decade. Tunisia under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was often held up as a beacon for Western-style women’s empowerment in the region, as the regime focused international attention on women’s rights legislation and away from its systematic repression – which, as Hind Ahmed Zaki documents, included large-scale sexual abuse of female activists.

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