Is the Arab Spring Bad for Women?

Overthrowing male dominance could be harder than overthrowing a dictator.

In many ways, 2011 has been the Year of the Arab Woman. From the earliest days of upheaval that started in Tunisia last December, women have been on the front lines of protest, leading public demonstrations, blogging passionately, covering the unrest as journalists, launching social media campaigns, smuggling munitions, and caring for the wounded. This month, when Tawakkol Karman became the first Arab woman to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, she gave an enthusiastic shout-out to her many Arab sisters who have struggled "to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men."

Across the region, though, Arab women are grumbling that overthrowing dictators is proving easier than overturning the pervasive supremacy of men. Gamila Ismail, a prominent Egyptian activist and politician, summed it up when she quit Egypt's parliamentary race in disgust after learning that she would be put third on the list in her district -- not a winning position. "We women had a very important role before, during, and after the revolution, and it does not work for us today, to accept this," she complained in a television interview. (She ran and narrowly lost as an independent candidate.) In Tunisia, disgruntled women activists have formed the October 24 Front to defend women's rights in the aftermath of the Islamists' electoral victory there. "We want a constitution that respects women's rights and doesn't roll back the advances we've made," said one Tunisian protester.

Arab women are embattled on multiple fronts. First and foremost are the deep-seated patriarchal customs that constrain women. Patriarchy is certainly not unique to Arab lands, but it runs deep. It doesn't help that for decades, the women's rights agenda was closely associated with the now-discredited authoritarian regimes: Egypt's Suzanne Mubarak ran a state-affiliated women's NGO; Leila Ben Ali, Tunisia's much-hated hairdresser-cum-first lady, was president of the Arab Women Organization, an intergovernmental body sponsored by the Arab League; and both Syria's Asma al-Assad and Jordan's Queen Rania have been active on women's issues. The rise of politically empowered Islamist parties that contest existing laws for women on religious grounds also pose serious complications for women. Although women's activism has clearly been important to the Arab revolts, there is no guarantee that women's rights activists will be able to turn their engagement into longer-term economic, social, and political gains. In fact, in some countries, there is reason for concern that women will see their rights erode.

Libya is a case in point. At the ceremony marking Libya's official liberation in October, one of the first announcements from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of Libya's National Transitional Council, was that any laws that contradicted sharia would be annulled. He specifically mentioned that, going forward, polygamy would be legal, drawing cheers and celebratory gunfire from the mostly male crowd. Libyan women expressed surprise and disappointment and wondered why, with all of Libya's pressing issues, reinstating polygamy should be on the front burner. (NATO leaders wondered the same.) Although polygamy was technically legal under Qaddafi, it was discouraged and today is not practiced widely in Libya, but that could change. Female university students, who largely describe themselves as pious, vow to fight this regression.

In Egypt, a number of developments over the past year underscore women's rights as a flashpoint in society. The inspirational images of gender solidarity in Tahrir Square in the early days of the revolution quickly gave way to ugly episodes of targeted harassment. A hastily planned demonstration on March 8, International Women's Day, attracted a few hundred women but was marred by angry men shoving the protesters and yelling at them to go home, saying their demands for rights are against Islam. Around the same time, the Egyptian military rounded up scores of women demonstrators and, in a show of raw intimidation, subjected many of them to "virginity tests." On the political level, women have been excluded from major decision-making bodies since the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime, and it appears that few, if any, will win seats in the ongoing parliamentary elections. Their low success rate was not helped by the military's decision to eliminate a Mubarak-era quota ensuring women 64 seats. This was a setback for women's political participation, even though the quota enjoyed little credibility because it had been used to reward Mubarak loyalists.

The strong showing of Islamists parties in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections has women's groups worried. The ultraconservative Salafi groups, which took a surprising 20 percent of the vote, openly question a modern role for women in society. One Salafi leader refused to appear on a political talk show on television until the female host put on a headscarf. Another denounced the military government's requirement to include women on electoral lists as "evil," though Emad Abdel-Ghafour, head of al-Nour, the leading Salafi party, stated that the party does accept women candidates. Yet the Salafi women who did run demurred from showing their pictures on campaign materials, instead replacing their faces with pictures of flowers; moreover, the party deliberately clustered them at the bottom of its lists, making them unlikely to win seats. One Salafi sheikh recently issued an opinion that women should not wear high-heeled shoes in public. Along with Salafi statements of intent to ban alcohol and limit beach tourism, these swipes at women unnerve liberals.

Yet liberals have not been stalwarts of women's rights in Egypt either. The 2000 decision to grant women the right to no-fault divorce (prior to this, they had to jump over the onerous legal hurdle of proving abuse or abandonment) was denounced not only by Islamist groups but by secular ones too -- for undermining the family. Other changes to the personal-status laws in the past decade that have benefited women, particularly an expansion of custody rights, are coming under increasing attack. Critics discredit the reforms by derisively calling them "Suzanne's Laws," after Suzanne Mubarak. They claim the laws were intended to accommodate the wealthy friends of the former first lady, and they blame those statutes for a rise in the country's divorce rate. Given the criticism of these laws from all sides of the political spectrum, it is likely that they will be amended by the new parliament, and not to women's benefit.

Women seem to be faring better in Tunisia. Liberals and secularists have been deeply wary of the rise of al-Nahda, the country's leading Islamist party, warning that it could mean a reversal of women's rights. Since the 1950s, Tunisian women have enjoyed the most expansive legal rights in the region, including relatively progressive marriage and divorce laws and access to birth control and abortion. Since returning to Tunisia in the beginning of this year, Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda's leader, has strived to convince Tunisians that his party will not seek to change the country's personal-status laws. Some, however, have accused al-Nahda of obfuscating its real intentions behind moderate rhetoric -- a charge that did not prevent the party from surging to victory with 41 percent of the vote in October's election. Thanks to electoral rules requiring favorable placement of women on party lists, women gained 23 percent of the seats in parliament, a higher share than in the U.S. Congress. Most of the women are from al-Nahda and will likely reflect their party's traditional views on women, but their participation in such large numbers at least normalizes an active political role for women. Moreover, Ghannouchi and other al-Nahda leaders so far have been purposefully focused on efforts to jump-start the economy, produce jobs, and reassure foreign investors. Al-Nahda has forged a coalition with liberal parties, and to maintain that coalition, it will have to continue to focus on the economy and human rights rather than getting bogged down in divisive culture wars.

Ghannouchi seems to understand that while rolling back gains for women can score points among Islamic conservatives, ultimately al-Nahda will win or lose on economic grounds, and women are important economic actors. With high rates of literacy and relatively low fertility, women constitute nearly a third of Tunisia's workforce. Economic reality simply demands a pragmatic approach toward women. Let's hope that Ghannouchi can get that message through to his Islamist brothers across the region. Otherwise, Arab women might soon be channeling their Iranian sisters, who have complained that Iran's Islamic Revolution has brought them little but poverty and polygamy.



Reading Shakespeare in Pyongyang

Want to understand North Korea after Kim Jong Il’s death? Good luck. The palace intrigue in Pyongyang would put the bard to shame.

The prospect of Kim Jong Il's death has loomed over Asia ever since he suffered a major stroke in 2008. And yet we have still managed to be surprised: Official word of the Dear Leader's demise has inserted a profound sense of uncertainty about the future of North Korea and its neighborhood, driving down markets throughout the region, and spiking popular concern in South Korea about what comes next.

Yet it will be machinations inside Pyongyang -- not the hand-wringing of those of us outside the country -- that in the coming days, weeks, and months will have profound implications for the future of the Korean peninsula and the entire Asia-Pacific region. Taking into account North Korea's impoverished and imprisoned population, its large and nuclear-armed military, and the global strategic significance of its neighbors, the stakes are astronomical.

North Korea was founded by Gen. Kim Il Sung from the ashes of Japanese occupation. With significant support from the Soviet Union, Kim (a.k.a. the Great Leader) established a Stalin-esque regime founded on fear, repression, and a cult of personality that raised Kim to the status of a god. Yet the Great Leader did not buy into his own immortality, and began grooming one of his sons, Kim Jong Il, to replace him upon his death. Kim the Younger (a.k.a. the Dear Leader) thus underwent a multi-decade process to consolidate his own base of power within the three pillars of the North Korean state -- the Korean Workers Party, the government bureaucracy, and the military -- so that, upon his father's death in 1994, he had already established a secure base of power from which to rule.

Kim Jong Il, however, apparently did not take the prospect of his own mortality seriously. It was not until after his 2008 stroke that serious succession planning appeared to take place. Previously moribund bureaucracies were revitalized and potential competitors were sent to the countryside or suffered fatal car crashes. The Dear Leader's 20-something son, Kim Jong Un -- now being hailed in Pyongyang as the Great Successor -- was made a full general (despite his lack of any military experience), named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and appointed to the Central Committee of the Korean Workers'' Party -- all moves to solidify his status as his father's official successor. Also promoted to general was Kim Jong Il's sister Kim Kyong Hui, whose husband Jang Song Taek is vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and was seen by many as the Dear Leader's primary deputy.

Thus stands North Korea's leadership today: the not-so-dearly departed's twenty-something son and sister, both of whose promotions are little more than a year old, and the Dear Leader's apparently capable brother-in-law. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un has not had nearly enough time to establish a personal base of power within the North Korean elite and bureaucracy and his ability to directly control the levers of power (especially the military) is questionable.

The plan appears to be that the new leader will continue to build his power base as his more established aunt and uncle manage the state in a kind of collective regency until the time is right for Kim Jong Un to take full power. Kim Jong Un can count on the legitimacy of the Kim family bloodline (which carries significant weight in North Korean propaganda), the relationships he has established so far, his gender (a cultural bias that prevents his aunt from taking power herself), and any residual loyalty elites may have to his father's arrangements.

Yet succession rarely goes according to plan. When the prospect of absolute power and unlimited resources are combined with familial intrigue and a military and civilian leadership whose ambitions have been tempered by decades of despotic rule, succession could become downright Shakespearean.

The coming months and years in Pyongyang will be filled with palace intrigue. While it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un will be attacked directly, his aunt and uncle may attempt to sideline him with a grand title but little real authority. Will Kim Jong Un be able to wrest power from his aunt and uncle? How will North Korea's other generals and party leaders react to attempts by a twenty-something kid to command people with decades more experience and connections? Who will control the military and domestic security services? And what of Kim's other relatives? Many of them have been living in quasi-exile so as not to threaten the heir apparent's legitimacy and could play a significant role (either as instigators or as figureheads) in factional maneuvering. Coups, either explicit or quiet, are a distinct possibility.

Given the opacity of the North Korean regime, it is unlikely that the outside world will have a good idea of exactly what's going on. Rumor and old-fashioned Kremlinology, long the first resort of North Korea watchers the world over, will remain our primary windows into Pyongyang. Yet that is not to say that North Korea will turn inward and leave the rest of us alone.

More likely, North Korea's external behavior during a time of transition will be even more unpredictable and destabilizing than when Kim Jong Il was in power. Given the importance of controlling the military in securing one's position in Pyongyang, jockeying insiders (including Kim Jong Un himself) will likely attempt to use confrontation with South Korea and the United States as a tool to boost their legitimacy and solidify ties with military elites. Many observers believe that North Korea's attacks on South Korea in 2010 were driven by succession politics, strongly suggesting that the region should prepare for future crises. Other provocations, including nuclear and missile tests, are certainly on the table.

Yet there is a window for very cautious optimism. A change in leadership means that there is a chance, albeit a small one, that Pyongyang's new leadership could choose to turn away from the isolation and confrontation of the past and choose to open itself up to the world. Such a radical departure from established dogma would likely only be possible after leadership in Pyongyang has been consolidated and solidified, but we should not discount the possibility entirely.

China and the United States have significant roles to play in the coming months and years. Beijing has significant interests in sustaining North Korean stability, and in recent years has stepped up its economic and political engagement with Pyongyang. Many of China's leaders believe North Korea will reform and upon up, along the line's of Deng Xiaoping's historic reforms, and seek time and strategic space to allow Pyongyang to change. With Kim Jong Il's death, it is possible that Beijing will quietly but actively use its significant influence in North Korea to assist those elites in Pyongyang believed to be reliable and sympathetic to reform with Chinese characteristics. In the meantime, China will likely oppose any efforts by the United States or South Korea it believes would destabilize North Korea or threaten Pyongyang's hold on power. For the foreseeable future, Beijing's mantra will continue to be "patience and stability."

The United States, for its part, will keep a cautious eye on North Korea while working closely with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo to manage any crises that may occur. While Washington generally deems any significant movement from Pyongyang on nuclear issues to be unlikely at best until succession issues are resolved, the United States will nevertheless keep a keen ear open for any indication from the North that progress is possible. The fate of talks between Pyongyang and Washington on food aid and nuclear issues, rumored to be slated for this week, are under examination and may be delayed.

The most important external player in this drama will be South Korea. South Koreans are sharply divided between those who see North Korea as a malignant threat, and those who see it as a wayward brother in need of engagement and encouragement. A change in leadership in Pyongyang presents both sides with a chance at change. For southerners who see North Korea as a threat, a time of leadership transition may represent one of the last chances to reunify the Korean peninsula. For those who see North Korea more benignly, leadership change represents an opportunity to turn the corner with Pyongyang and encourage a more friendly and conciliatory era of inter-Korean relations. With Seoul approaching parliamentary and presidential elections in April and December (respectively) next year, the South Korean people will directly influence their nation's approach to the North. The results of these elections could prove decisive for the entire Korean peninsula.

As for North Korea itself, the coming months will see some state-endorsed wailing, as well as the kind of Stalin-esque official funeral afforded the Great Leader. North Korea watchers have marked April 15, 2012 on their calendars as the next opportunity to see where North Korea is headed. This will be the 100th birthday of Kim Il-Sung, and was planned to be a celebration of North Korea's supposed status as a "strong and prosperous country" and something of a coming out party for Kim Jong Un. Now that fate has intervened, it will likely be seen more as a litmus test. Will he pass?