Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 10

In the New Tunisia, Women's Rights Are in Play

Friday, November 4, 2011

Women's rights have long been considered a development keystone. Tunisian women--in the vanguard of the Arab world--will put that theory to a crucial test as the country's new democracy takes shape following last week's elections.

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Modern Amenities, Longer Life

A majority of Tunisian women are urbanites, living in homes with modern sanitation and household conveniences. In old age, a Tunisian woman can expect, statistically, to live to 77, five years longer than the world average and 21 years longer than her counterpart in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Only 3 percent of Tunisians are thought to be living on less than $1.25 a day, compared with 53 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Why do all these measures of a woman's life matter? For decades people looking for clues to why some countries develop faster than others have pointed to the status of women and their involvement in national life, including in economic development and politics.

Educated women, it has been said again and again, will have fewer children to strain family resources and more time, energy and training to play productive roles.

The belief that women are key to development, and the demand that their rights be foremost in matters of reproductive health, were the main messages of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. That watershed meeting was held in Cairo, at the center of the Arab world.

Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of the Women's Learning Partnership in Bethesda, Md., which brings together women from many Islamic societies, knows how tenuous women's rights can be and how fragile gains in status too often are.

Afkhami, a minister of women's affairs before the Islamic revolution in Iran, saw a generation of advances rolled back in a short time. She testified this week about the role and potential of women in the Arab spring before a Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee on democracy, human rights and women's issues.

"Egypt and Tunisia are prime examples of countries where progress towards women's equality may be undone without America's firm and increased commitment," Afkhami told the senators. "Before the Arab Spring, Tunisia stood out in the region for its more equitable family laws, along with Morocco, and Tunisia's historic election last week was heralded as a model of transparency."

That election resulted in a majority vote for Ennahda, which has been described as a moderate Islamic party that has pledged to uphold women's rights, Afkhami said. But, she added, "Women's rights and democracy activists are seriously concerned that the party will act differently once in power."

In Egypt, Hoda Rashad, director of the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo, spoke for her fellow Egyptian women in an interview earlier this year when she catalogued gains made in recent decades in such areas as education and family planning.

But she was also cautious about a threat of reversals for women in the tumultuous revolution around her. "We aren't there yet," she said.


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Barbara Crossette, a former correspondent in Asia and at the United Nations for The New York Times, is the lead reporter and author of the UN Population Fund's 2011 report, "People and Possibilities in a World of 7 Billion."



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