Day three of the Women in Public Service Institute tackled the pressing question of the Arab Spring and its complicated legacy for women’s rights, beginning with a discussion between Ambassadors Moushira Khattab and Michele Sison moderated by Dr. Haleh Esfandiari. All three distinguished women have spoken to the delegates in other capacities, but their combined expertise on political transitions in the MENA region made for a captivating panel.
Dr. Esfandiari’s work interviewing women and other stakeholders after the Iranian revolution, chronicled in her 1997 book Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution, provided an important perspective from a comparable historical moment. As director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, she also raised the voices of activists from the region who contributed to a Wilson Center publication collecting reflections on women and the Arab Spring. ( http://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/reflections-women-the-arab-spring-women%E2%80%99s-voices-around-the-world) Dr. Moushira Khattab was a career diplomat for Egypt before migrating to the sphere of women’s and children’s rights. Her success as Minister for Family and Population spearheading a countrywide grassroots movement for legal reforms, including the criminalization of FGM, is a model for activists around the world, and her knowledge of the processes of change in Egyptian society helped contextualize her thoughts on the current situation. Ambassador Michele Sison spoke about the critical role women played in revolutions across the Arab world, which she watched unfold as an outsider from her diplomatic postings in the region. She also reminded delegates about another public service sector in which women must play a part: law enforcement.
Though each of the three speakers brought different experiences to the table, all claimed a “cautious optimism” with regard to the future role of women in transitioning Arab societies. Newly-elected governing bodies have almost no women at all, and the media warns of an ‘Islamist Winter,’ but it is important to remember how crucial the role of women was to the success of the revolutions. Their heroism cannot be forgotten, and should provide a platform from which women can demand equality moving forward. Furthermore, as many of the delegates brought up, the revolutions mark a break with a culture a fear and silence. As Dr. Khattab remarked, the short term can seem a bumpy road, but the opening of civil society will benefit all groups, especially women. The marginalization of women and women’s issues during transition is a familiar story for any student of history, and ultimately it falls to women like the WPSP delegates to stand up for their rights. Hearing the discussion that followed, there is no doubt that they will do just that.
One of the most inspiring comments was from Egyptian delegate Raghada about her own participation at Tahrir Square last January. She described the partnerships forged between men and women, and the culture of equality and respect fostered in the square. With such foundations there is indeed hope for women if we unite to demand equal rights.
Rebecca Turkington is a recent graduate of Wellesley College where she studied International Relations. Rebecca is working as an intern for the Women in Public Service Summer Institute.