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In The Media

Gender equality and the Arab Spring – if only anyone paid any attention

by Ferry de Kerckhove

May 8, 2012

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe[1] – a little known non-EU European institution – has recently published a preliminary version of a resolution that goes to the heart of a defining issue for the Arab World: “Equality between women and men: a condition for the success of the Arab Spring”.

It acknowledges that “a process of democratic transition is currently under way”, which may be somewhat optimistic, but it squarely states – o, so rightly – that “this process can be successful only if equality between women and men is placed as a cornerstone in the legislative and constitutional foundations of the new institutions and if women are fully associated in building and enforcing them”. And then it laments the fact that there have been little improvements in women’s lives in the last year – quite to the contrary, in fact.

It also expresses legitimate fears about the prospects of a gender equality agenda under religion-inspired parties, a legitimate concern despite all the assurances given by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Indeed, some of the new laws discussed in the Egyptian Parliament include allowing marriage for girls age 14, a significant reversal of the previous regime’s very progressive outlook on these issues. The draft resolution notes a few hopeful signs in Morocco and Tunisia and calls for bringing legislation in line with international standards but hastens to recognize that key to progress is an evolution of mentalities and mindsets.

The Assembly then presents a series of specific proposals – over 30 of them that reflect the deep engagement the Council, and its elected representatives, have displayed over the years towards strengthening human rights and countries’ democratic foundations. They cover the status of women and call for an end to discrimination and violence against women, the promotion of women representation in elected bodies, family laws, participation in public life, general empowerment, assistance programs for women victims of violence, the promotion through the media of a culture of gender equality, the participation of women in transitional justice process (remember the woman beaten up by the military in Cairo), and of course the training of police and the judiciary in the field of women rights. It also talks about gender equality for civil servants (do we ever need that one, not just in the Arab World).

As expected, the resolution covers as well financing and education, facilitation of NGO work in the field, literacy programs, etc. The resolution thereafter focusses on specifics pertaining to the three countries of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt and their ongoing constitutional review processes.

It is significant that most of the specific recommendations are focused on the existing body of Tunisian and Moroccan legislations or practices and say little about Egypt, which is clearly in a legislative no-man’s-land at present. One would hope that the example of Morocco and Tunisia introducing special safeguards aimed at boosting women’s representation in their recent elections – a divisive issue, as some look at “women quotas” as “ghettoizing” their place in society – would encourage other regimes to follow suit.

While the promotion of women rights is a somewhat failed universal endeavor, it behooves all governments – not just Western governments which are also delinquent in this regard, be it to a lesser extent – to express support for a true revolution in the Arab World. Of course this includes Canada! Indeed, whatever the outcome of the tragic events taking place in the region, it will only deserve its “revolutionary” attribute when women’s rights will not only have been institutionally enshrined but have also become a fact of daily life.

Thank you to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly!


[1] The Council of Europe is an international organization promoting co-operation between all 47 countries of Europe mainly in the areas of legal standards, human rights, democratic development and the rule of law. Its Parliamentary Assembly is composed of MPs from the parliament of each member state.

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