By Lisa Anderson
ISTANBUL (TrustLaw)—Women’s rights are in flux and under pressure in many Muslim-majority countries at the moment, but things could get much worse if regimes dominated by Islamic fundamentalists wind up replacing dictatorships toppled by revolutions, according to Muslim women’s rights leaders from Syria, Tunisia and Egypt.
“A fundamentalist rule would be the hardest thing for us to face,” said Sabah Al Hallak, an activist and member of the Syrian League for Women’s Rights, speaking to a large audience during the 12th International Forum of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.
Delegates from Syria are something of celebrities at the conference. Many among the 2,000 forum participants are anxious to hear the latest on the status of women’s rights in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad continues a brutal crackdown on rebels and protesters committed to his overthrow .
The latest news isn’t good, Hallak said, particularly as the prospect of a fundamentalist government looms if Assad is deposed. Opposition groups already are making compromises with fundamentalists and many of the protesters against Assad have a fundamentalist view of women, favoring a requirement that women be fully veiled and calling them “wives” or “harem dwellers,” she said.
“This language throws women back to the Middle Ages,” she said. “In Syria, particularly women are in great danger.”
Only a secular constitution can guarantee women’s rights, since the Constitution would trump civil laws, many of which discriminate against women, Hallak said. “This alone would guarantee equality between men and women.”
Colleagues from Tunisia and Egypt, where revolutions already have taken place, cautioned that they, too, fear the rise of new fundamentalist governments.
“We must be afraid of the situation and we should be afraid,” said Ahlem Belhadj, coordinator in Tunisia for Equality Without Reservation, a coalition of 600 Arab organisations committed to lifting reservations against full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
In fact, Tunisia did lift all reservations, but did so without publicising it, she said. But, given the potential political changes ahead, that decision may never be implemented.
“We have a Salafi movement, a very fundamentalist movement, coming into power…and they have the money and power to harm us greatly,” said Belhadj, noting that the movement is receiving funding from the Wahhabis, members of the most conservative branch of Islam, in Saudi Arabia.
“Our rights are at stake today, not tomorrow,” she said. “We cannot allow Islamists to take control. We cannot allow ourselves to lose this fight.”
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where the complexion of the post-Mubarak government remains uncertain, also makes advocates for women’s rights fearful, according to Amal Abdel-Hadi, Egyptian coordinator for Equality Without Reservation.
“If the Muslim Brothers are in charge of redrafting the Constitution, we as women consider ourselves doomed,” she said. “We want a Constitution for everybody and we insist on it.”
Moreover, she said, “We cannot allow religious authorities to talk about women’s issues. This is intolerable, intolerable and inconceivable.”
** For more from the AWID conference go to TrustLaw's "Word on Women" blog