(WOMENSENEWS)–In the United States the current political debate is focused on our economic struggles and the next presidential election. For American women the concern is very much about jobs and economic and social security.
In the Arab world, the “spring” has turned to fall and the future for women’s security is worse. In Egypt, Al Jazeera reported, the economy has suffered and university-educated women are experiencing the highest unemployment at 55 percent. In Saudi Arabia, women may have gained the right to vote and run in elections this week, but they still can’t drive. It was widely reported yesterday that a court sentenced a Saudi woman with 10 lashes for defying the kingdom’s ban on women driving.
American and Arab women have much in common. While women in the Arab world are working for democracy, American women are trying to make democracy work. The fight for gender equity and democracy are deeply intertwined.
As the revolutions erupted last spring and Arab citizens struggled to bring democracy to their individual nations, Arabs of all ages and sexes were demonstrating and trying to evict their leaders.
In comedic contrast, American newspapers were full of sex scandals involving male politicians. The issue in the U.S. was about extra-marital sex and cheating.
While the dalliances and disloyalty of elected American officials cannot be equated to the abusive power of male Arab leadership and its long-term impact, there is a parallel: in both cases the men in power proceeded with an autocratic sense of impunity.
Tunisia Triggers Revolutions
The Arab revolutions began in Tunisia in December 2010 when rebels toppled their government while trying to create a new order. President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.
In Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egyptians were organizing and protesting the Hosni Mubarak government with the help of cell phones and social media. Mubarak resigned and is being tried for corruption and murder.
Libyan and Syrian dictators continued to brutally attack and kill their citizens in order to suppress rioting. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is nowhere to be found, having apparently escaped through underground tunnels. He faces prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
In contrast, the personal lives of certain American politicians created a media circus. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed he had cheated on his wife with a live-in housekeeper. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner was discovered texting pictures of his body parts to young women. Presidential candidate John Edwards and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to having affairs but only after being caught.
Schwarzenegger is now out of office and Weiner has resigned. Sanford was censured for misuse of funds and Edwards has been indicted by a federal grand jury for six counts of violating campaign contribution laws.
“Powerful men molest with impunity,” wrote Katha Pollitt in the International Herald Tribune, but the way in which Arab dictators govern and American politicians conduct their personal lives while in office has most recently led to their downfall and disgrace.
These changes in leadership have created opportunities for democracy and gender equality in both parts of the world.
Fighting Alongside Men
Despite feminist movements, in some parts of the Arab world women have been kept isolated, controlled within family structures and denied equal participation in Arab society. Many confront basic human rights issues, such as access to education and literacy; freedom of expression; guardianship laws and inheritance rights; and protection from violence and discrimination.
But these recent revolutions have brought women to the battlefields. They are fighting alongside men to achieve democracy. Women have become part of the ongoing political dialogue and their voices are heard through blogs, YouTube, Facebook and various political alliances.
Our demands are the same, said Faizah Sulimani, a protest leader from Yemen, in an article in the Guardian. They are “similar to men, starting with freedom, equal citizenship and giving women a greater role in society.”
In the United States, meanwhile, voters are fed up with politicians’ inability to resolve our country’s serious economic and social problems and are losing patience with their sexual peccadilloes. The list of disgraced elected officials is lengthy and the pressure to resign from office has come from constituents, party representatives and the media.
To help meet their needs, American women are demanding greater representation in the public arena. The 2012 Project is a national campaign to gain gender balance by increasing the number of women in elected office. The percentage of women currently in Congress is only 16 and in state legislatures across the country it is 24 percent. Other women’s political organizations, (including Emily’s List, the National Women’s Political Caucusand the Women’s Campaign Forum) continue also to recruit and support women for elected office.
These are perilous times for the American feminist movement. The threat of decreased Social Security income and the elimination of Medicare as well as health care reform add up to a frightening picture for women and their families. The safety net that many rely on may disappear.
Further adding to this lack of security are job losses.President Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act is designed to put people to work, but women have lost 300,000 jobs since 2009, according to the National Organization for Women. Women continue to earn only 77 cents to the dollar that men receive. Not only do women need employment, but they need livable wages and training for better paying jobs.
Having greater female representation may help. Studies by the New Brunswick, N.J.-based Center for American Women and Politics show that women in public office are more likely to enact policy that will improve the lives of women and their families. A critical mass of women in public office could make the difference in preserving economic and social gains that women have achieved in the past, as well as push through further gains.
In both the Arab and American worlds, women are fighting to get or retain economic and social justice. Whether suffering under brutal dictators or sexually abusive politicians, we are bound together in a global effort to help all women obtain equality and freedom.
Part of making democracy work is establishing women’s equal opportunity to participate in society and having their voices be part of decision-making. Research has shown a correlation between the belief in gender equality and the principles of democracy.
From Cairo to California, freedom and equality for women will create a stronger and healthier democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated it most eloquently when she said: “Women’s progress is essential for global progress.”
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Susan Rose is a former executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women and is retired from the Santa Barbara Country Board of Supervisors. Currently, she serves as vice chair of the Santa Barbara Human Rights Watch Committee.