Fostering Democracy in the New Middle East: Bet on the Region's Women and Girls

The massive wave of social and political protests of the “Arab Spring” shook up the status quo in the Middle East, making the voice of the women in the region heard with unprecedented power. Yet, in the post-revolutionary phase, this initial rise in the status and influence of women has been reversed.
The Arab Spring saw large sectors of the population across the region rise up against tyranny and join forces to demand freedom and dignity. In this early phase, women played an incredibly important and visible role in supporting the protests. However, when the dust of the revolution settled, pre-existing gender roles largely reemerged and de facto casted women, again, at the margins of the public arena.
This trend is not a result of the revolutionary process, but rather a continuation of the status quo. Already in 2009 the UN Arab Human Development Report had rightly identified discrimination against women as one of the great unexplored threats to the region's human security and obstacles to its development.
But even if discrimination against women is more a legacy of the past than a byproduct of the revolutions, still the ongoing post-uprising phase has not led to an improvement in the status of women in the region. What's more, numerous women activists in the region have gone as far as warning against the progressive worsening of the status of women and their rights.
Without an improvement of women' rights, there cannot be true regional 'awakening.' The concept of Arab 'spring' in fact implies the transition towards a more equal, more democratic, freer, and more prosperous society. To achieve all of these goals, there need to be an investment in the region's most unexplored potential—its women.
Creating a more open, democratic and equitable society inevitably requires involving all major stakeholders in the political and social process. In turn, this calls for greater participation of women—who make up roughly half of the population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
What can be then done from the outside to support the improvement of the status and rights of women and girls, in turn key components of a successful democratic transition?
Firstly, it is important to state upfront what cannot be done: and that is directly interfering, as it is up to the people in the region to determine the outcome of the revolutions. At the same time, there is still a place for openly supporting governmental initiatives that seek to improve women's rights and their legal status.
Such reforms are badly needed across the region in an number of areas: from ensuring equality before the law between men and women, to guaranteeing equal legal capacity for women, to reforming family law, to abolishing restrictions on women’s capacity to work. At the same time, codifying crimes like “sexual harassment” in the penal code, and imposing much harsher penalties on all forms of violence against women—especially domestic violence—should also be seen as a priority.
By the same token, respecting local processes should not prevent from openly speaking against crackdowns and restrictions to women's freedom.
Secondly, in addition to supporting greater de jure equality, it is important to go beyond legal protection and to address the starting de facto gap in opportunities and rights between men and women within society. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, "there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people'.
Accordingly investments in girls and women' education would play a key role in starting to address the gender gap. The enrolment rate of women in the region is still lower than the enrollment of boys, while their illiteracy rate is higher.
Removing obstacles to access to education for girls should then be seen as a priority. Also, strengthening vocational training and literacy programs for older women who were not able to complete their education must be a critical area where to invest. Similarly, women have to be better integrated into the economic arena. For instance, micro-credit programs focused on lending to women and fostering the growth of women cooperatives have already been tried, successfully, in other areas of the world, and could be similarly helpful in the MENA region.
Thirdly, it is also crucial to think at the local level and to support local NGOs and civil-society groups that work on grassroots empowerment at the community level. In fact the growth of a robust and strong civil society is positively correlated to women empowerment.
Finally, there needs to be a long-term strategic commitment to the status and freedoms of women in the region. Supporting women' rights should be understood as critical for the region's human security, stability, prosperity, and democracy. Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Young Atlanticist at the Atlantic Council, and a member of the faculty at Tel Aviv University. She also works as security and policy consultant for political risk consulting firms, international organizations as well as foreign embassies. Copyright © 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations