The Arab Spring might have brought newfound freedoms to the Middle East, but it also saw a wave of Islamists rise to power intent on restricting the liberties of women. Tunisian feminist Ahlem Belhadj has fought back -- and proved in the process that liberals will not remain silent as Islamist forces attempt to hijack the revolution for their own ends.
Belhadj's Tunisian Association of Democratic Women has led the charge against Islamist attempts to bring back archaic practices such as polygamy and female circumcision, which were banned under the previous regime. But unfortunately, the 47-year-old child psychiatrist has her work cut out for her. This summer, Islamists pushed through a clause in the draft constitution that declared women "complementary" to men. In response, Belhadj helped organize a thousands-strong demonstration in the streets of Tunis to protest what women saw as an open assault on their rights. The clause was soon reworded, but Belhadj sees more subtle dangers on the horizon. "Parents are exercising greater moral pressure on young girls to wear the veil," she worries. "And feminists are the victims of intimidation: They are attacked on the streets [and] insulted during sermons in mosques." Belhadj has also taken her battle to the courts, where she helped represent a woman who was questioned about whether she was guilty of "indecency" after allegedly being raped by two policemen.
The battle to expand women's rights is being fought not only in Tunisia but across the Arab world, where only one-fourth of women are part of the labor force, polygamy and arranged marriages are all too common, and there is not a single country where women's political voice is equal to that of men. To Belhadj, these battles are inseparable from the Arab world's larger struggle for freedom. "As feminists, we are more vigilant than ever in the face of these reversals," she says. "It is out of the question to see the result of 50 years of struggle go up in smoke."
How Bad Is It? •More than 90 percent of women ever married in Egypt have been subjected to genital mutilation; 80 percent report experiencing sexual harassment. •In Yemen, 52 percent of girls are married before age 18, and 53 percent of women are illiterate. •An estimated 20 percent of women in Iraq and at least 35 percent in Lebanon are victims of domestic violence. •In both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there is not a single woman in parliament and not a single female minister.