The New York Daily News, 2/21/12
The Arab Spring’s misogynist winter
The rise of political Islam in all three countries has led some commentators to accuse the Islamists of turning the Arab Spring into an Islamist winter for women. Yet the backlash against women is not confined to Islamists. In Egypt, women who demonstrated for equal rights last year on International Women’s Day were met with ugly jeers and taunts to go home and take care of their children.
Female protesters against the secular military government were subjected to brutal beatings and “virginity tests.” Women who venture into Tahrir Square these days are often sexually harassed.
As the Egyptian anthropologist Hania Sholkamy recently noted, even the left-wing activists who first manned the barricades against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime “reject the whole narrative of gender equality as a figment of a Western imagination.”
The patriarchal attitudes that underlie this remarkable resistance to modern feminism go back centuries. They will not be changed overnight, any more than the authoritarian cultures that produced the regimes Egyptians and others are now seeking to replace can be changed overnight.
For example, more than half of Egyptians in 2010 said they backed segregating men and women in the workplace, while barely 60% agreed that women should have rights equal to those of men, according to the Pew Research Center.
Arab feminists would do well to listen to the leaders of Iran’s intellectually vibrant, though suppressed, women’s rights movement.
Iran’s 1979 revolution revealed that the penetration of feminist ideas in Iranian society was far thinner than the country’s pro-Western elite had imagined. The Shah’s top-down efforts to impose women’s rights on Iran had backfired, leading to widespread resentment. (Similarly, in Egypt, laws backed by first lady Suzanne Mubarak giving women more freedom to divorce and imposing a quota for women in Parliament are widely denigrated as “Suzanne’s laws.”)
Although Iranian women supported the overthrow of the Shah, the theocratic regime that replaced him turned them into second-class citizens.
Iran’s women’s rights activists decided that they had no choice but to start over at the grassroots. In political pushes such as the One Million Signatures Campaign, they have sought to persuade ordinary Iranians of the unfairness of the Islamic laws that, for example, give half as much weight to a woman’s testimony as to a man’s. The Iranian regime fears these simple appeals to justice so greatly that its response has been to imprison many of the movement’s leaders and drive others into exile.
Arab women at this point do not face the dangers that Iranian women do — of being jailed if they speak out. They should organize themselves to demand their rights before it is too late.
Scroggins is the author of a new book, “Wanted Women: Faith, Lies and the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui.”