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Are the Mideast revolutions bad for women's rights?

Egyptian women, shown celebrating in Cairo Friday, one week after the departure of President Mubarak , must now ensure that new leaders uphold their rights.
Egyptian women, shown celebrating in Cairo Friday, one week after the departure of President Mubarak , must now ensure that new leaders uphold their rights. (Pedro Ugarte)

The constitutional reform process presents challenges for women's rights. Some role for sharia is inevitable in the new Egyptian constitution, as the existing one already establishes Islamic law as the main source of legislation. The real issue is what kind of Islam will exert most influence.

The rise of Salafism, a particularly conservative form of the faith propagated by Saudi Arabia, should worry Egyptian women's groups. In recent years, tensions between secularists and Salafis have been rising, with Salafis calling for full veiling of women and gender segregation in universities. The Salafis' following is evident in the rising number of Egyptian women wearing the niqab, the face-covering veil, long black abayas and even gloves on their hands to avoid physical contact with men.

Wearing the veil has become popular in Tunisia and Egypt for a variety of reasons, including as an expression of religious identity, conforming to social pressures and as a statement against the secular authoritarianism of the government. (The irony is that Egypt is the birthplace of Arab feminism, which in the first half of the 20th century put much energy into unveiling women.)

With Hosni Mubarak gone, activists will now have to contend with hard-core politics in a way that has been missing from Egypt's Potemkin parliament. Controversial legislation, like the equal right to divorce that was passed in 2000, will come under pressure from Islamist lawmakers who fiercely opposed the bill. (Tunisia is the only other Arab country that grants women the right.) Women's groups can no longer fall back upon a sympathetic Mubarak regime, which often sided with their cause.

In a more fluid democratic system, women's groups in Tunisia and Egypt will have to forge alliances with moderate religious leaders who promote progressive interpretations of sharia. Women's groups in countries such as Morocco, Jordan and, to some extent, Iran have succeeded in doing so, harnessing critical support on legislation affecting their rights.

If a brave new world of electoral politics does emerge, women's rights activists will have to be savvy - commanding international support without raising fears of undue Western influence. When women in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have faced disastrous rollbacks of their rights in the name of religion, they have called in the international media and shamed their governments into backing down.

Tunisian and Egyptian activists should know that women's rights often become bargaining chips for some other agenda. In Iraq, the American-appointed Governing Council wasted no time in trying to rescind the Baathists' progressive family law and replace it with religious law. Only a backlash from women's groups, and a U.S. veto, prevented the move. In the months ahead, women in Tunisia and Egypt must be ready to face similar watershed moments.

Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East."

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