Gender Equality in Arab Constitutions
I recently read Comparative Study of Constitutional Processes in the Arab World: A Gender Perspective, co-authored by constitutional experts Hoda Elsadda, Salsabil Klibi and Ibrahim Draji.
It’s worth thinking about the extent to which constitutions have had an impact on women’s movements in the Arab world – and vice versa.
The so-called Arab Spring was built on demands for freedom, equality, dignity, social justice – those are fundamental building blocks of a representative constitution. The report argues that if those rights were guaranteed on paper, and implemented in practice, there would have been no need for revolution. After all, a constitution is a social contract that outlines the relationship between the rights-holders (the citizens) and the duty-bearer (the state).
In examining the writing of constitutions in the region, we can ask if they’ve pursued an agenda that supports gender equality and women’s empowerment. I think we know the answer, in most cases. This isn’t unique to the region. And, like other regions, Arab women raised their voices alongside men in protests for justice. Where did those voices go when the constitutions were written? Women worldwide have seen the so-called nationalist struggle supersede the feminist struggle time and again.
This isn’t the time for women’s issues, they’ve been told. Women are asked to put off their demands for equality until there is political stability – a mythical time that never quite materializes. Every single case has shown that it is a mistake to separate women’s rights from the population’s demands for freedom, equality, security.
I’ve said this before: research shows that a country’s stability is demonstrated not by the type of government or the state of the economy, but in how the country treats its women. And peace agreements that include women are more inclusive, and last longer. The evidence is there. No real change is possible if half of the population is neglected.
Tunisia is one of the few Arab countries who took these lessons to heart. As a result, their constitution ensures gender equality. Granted, there is always a disparity between policy on paper and in practice, but embedding these rights at the highest level is a critical prerequisite.
The lesson continues to be that women’s rights belong at the negotiating table at every stage. Democracy is compromised without gender equality. But times of instability, perpetually present in the region, offer ample excuse to park women’s rights until “peace” is achieved. Again, no peace without women. Not negotiable.
Women need to be at the drafting table. But female presence doesn’t necessarily mean female power. And female presence doesn’t necessarily represent female interests. So, the table needs feminist women. And feminist men, for that matter, although those are relatively fewer in the region. These feminists cannot compromise, despite pressures to tone down, water down, take down language that ensures full rights and respect for women.
And then there’s the quota. We in Lebanon know too well the anger of quota-rejection. And we continue to be among the lowest in the world in terms of women’s political participation. Listen up, Lebanon. We have to do better. Positive discrimination will be a start to rectifying the historic inequality and structural exclusion of women from politics. A committed civil society and a strong feminist movement could (could have?!) advanced this agenda, in part.
That didn’t work, so where does that leave us? In the region, we need to scale up our intellectual and cultural and social revolutions, as the report rightly says, along with our political revolutions. We have a lot to think about, like how to untangle religion from the state, and the military from the state, and other “easy questions”.
And, we have to be louder, better, stronger at advocating for gender issues without allowing them to be sidelined by politicians. The challenge for Arab women is that we’ve often been representations of social progress or regress. Women become the symbol of the nation, and women’s rights become a “threat” to “our culture”, launching conservative battlecries to “protect” women from Western influences. We’ve heard all this before. Everywhere.
As the report states: “Women became the victims of both colonial and nationalist identity discourses that had manipulated women’s rights discourse to serve their own political interests”. Yup. For example, the draft constitution in Syria, mandating the state to “protect the family’s religious and moral values and customs”. Lots of room for interpretation here. And none in favor of women’s rights.
It’s worth noting that some foreign states who interfere in such processes are often stronger advocates for cultural relativism, to the detriment of women, than the countries themselves.
And so we once again ride the same roller-coaster, with the rise (again) of right-wing parties and extremist groups. The region is fertile ground these days, given protracted conflicts and increasing insecurities. So, women’s rights activists have to remain vigilant – ensuring not just that the constitution reflects women’s full agency and autonomy, but also fighting for those mechanisms that bring these guarantees to life.