CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab women played a central role in the Arab Spring, but their hopes the revolts would bring greater freedom and expanded rights for women have been thwarted by entrenched patriarchal structures and the rise of Islamists, gender experts in the countries say.
Almost three years after popular uprisings toppled autocratic leaders in one of the most conservative corners of the world, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on 22 Arab states showed three out of five Arab Spring countries in the bottom five states for women's rights (for the methodology behind the poll, please see poll2013.trust.org).
Egypt emerged as the worst country to be a woman in the Arab world today, followed closely by Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Egypt scored badly in almost every category, including gender violence, reproductive rights, treatment of women in the family and their inclusion in politics and the economy.
Arab Spring countries Syria and Yemen ranked 18th and 19th, respectively - worse than Sudan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and insurgency-hit Somalia, which scored better on factors such as political and economic inclusion, women’s position in the family, reproductive rights and sexual violence.
Libya and Tunisia came in 9th and 6th.
But while the situation is dire, some activists saw reasons for optimism. For one thing, the revolts led more poor women and those on the margins to be aware of their rights.
Women’s rights have traditionally been a concern of the “intellectual elite” in Egypt, where many are illiterate and live below the poverty line, said Nihad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights.
“We used to suffer from the fact that talk of women’s rights came across as talk ... limited to the creme-de-la-creme ladies of society,” she told Reuters.
“But the big challenge women faced led to women’s issues being discussed on the street by ordinary women and illiterate women.”
The questions to 336 gender experts invited to take part in the poll were based on key provisions of the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which all Arab Spring states have signed or ratified. The polling took place in August and September.
Egypt’s ranking below Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving and need permission from a male guardian to work or travel, reflects widespread concerns about harassment, which was mentioned by almost every respondent as a major issue.
A U.N report on women in April said up to 99.3 percent of women and girls in Egypt are subjected to sexual harassment.
Samira Ibrahim, a pro-democracy protester who was subjected to an invasive virginity test while in detention when the military council was in power after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, said “harassment is the biggest problem facing us now”.
But the ranking also indicates a surge in violence and a rollback of freedoms since the 2011 uprising, experts said.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt, culminating with the election of President Mohamed Mursi, angered many prominent activists who say the Islamist group infringed on women’s rights.
A year into office, Mursi was toppled in a military takeover after mass protests against his rule.
While there is a slight improvement in political participation for women under the army-backed interim government, there is still a long way to go, some analysts said.
“The whole image of women during Mursi’s rule was that a woman is a mother who should be bearing children and that is the most important thing,” Fatma Khafagy, who heads the Ombudsman office for gender equality in Egypt, told Reuters. “The whole discourse was against women’s rights and gender equality.”
The Brotherhood warned that a U.N. declaration on women’s rights could destroy society by allowing a woman to travel, work and use contraception without her husband’s approval and letting her control family planning.
“Things changed after Mursi was removed - for the better. At least these threats were not there. However, I do not see much increase in women in decision-making,” Khafagy said.
In Syria, ranked fourth-worst in the poll, women’s rights have been hit badly in a country torn apart by 2-1/2 years of civil war that has killed more than 100,000.
“Women are suffering the most,” said Susan Ahmad, an opposition activist who works in Damascus. “Many men died and women are playing the role of men to take care of their children.”
Many Syrian women worry about the influence of militant Islamists who have taken control of some rebel-held areas.
“The only thing women want now is to be safe,” said a woman who was a student in Damascus University when the revolt first broke out in March 2011 and who had joined some of the first protests that took place in the capital.
“I feel like I have to wear a headscarf,” she said. “We are scared of what Islamists will do ... The Islamists want women to cover their lives, not just their bodies.”
Women in Yemen are pushing for a minimum quota for representation in parliament in discussions at national reconciliation talks in a country still longing for stability nearly two years after a revolt ousted the president.
Yemeni women in particular face an uphill battle for rights in the largely conservative country where child marriage is still common in rural areas. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which espouses an extremist view of Islam, is also a threat.
“There are voices that are trying to suppress women as in other Arab countries,” said 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman from Yemen, which ranked 18th out of 22 in the Thomson Reuters survey.
“They are trying to obliterate ... her participation in the revolution and in building a mature civil society,” she told Reuters by telephone from Sanaa. But she added conservative voices were “decreasing day by day”.
Tunisian activist and blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who has been nominated for the Nobel peace prize, said she was worried about women’s status under the Islamist-led government.
“The status of Tunisian women is worse under the Islamist-led government,” she said. “Islamist extremists are playing the role of religious police and exerting pressure on girls.”
Last April, hardline Islamists threw stones and bottles at young women in a student hostel in Tunis to stop them staging a performance of dance and music.
In Libya, two years since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, tribal and Islamist leaders are embroiled in a struggle over the post-revolution spoils.
“I am worried that those who exploit Islam will come to power and want Libya to be like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia,” said Dina Razzouk, a Libyan rights activist.
“It’s a very fanatic and traditional society.”
The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights’s Komsan said momentum continued to build for improvements, however.
“Advocacy for women’s rights is much more active than before,” she said.
Amal Abdel Hadi, head of the board of trustees of the New Woman Foundation in Egypt, said it was important not to feel defeated.
“These days it’s very depressing, so if you don’t push yourself to see the positive aspects that we are working for in the longer term, you die,” she said.
“The revolutions have not failed women because they gave women the chance to be there and to see that if they don’t force themselves into the space, they won’t achieve. We have to force it.”
Reporting by Maggie Fick, Yasmine Saleh and Yara Bayoumy in Cairo, Mohamed Ghobari in Sanaa, Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Ghaith Shennib in Tripoli; Editing by Tim Large and Sonya Hepinstall; For full coverage of Thomson Reuters Foundation's poll on women's rights in the Arab world, including interactive info-graphics, visit poll2103.trust.org