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While active participants on the front lines of protests and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), women became invisible, absent from processes of formation of the new states, and excluded from decision-making roles, responsibilities, and positions in the aftermath of the uprisings. Except in rare cases, men dominated leadership positions in transitional structures, including the constitutional reform and electoral committees[i]. Subsequent elections brought very few women to parliamentary and ministerial positions.
Additionally, a strong and immediate backlash against women and women’s rights has clearly emerged in the aftermath. The rise of new religious fundamentalist groups with renewed patriarchal agendas aiming to obliterate previous gains of the women’s movements even in countries with longer histories of women’s rights, such as Tunisia, has been very alarming.
The varying contexts of governance and transition processes across the MENA countries presents an important opportunity for women human rights defenders to shape the future of these democracies. However, the lack of prioritization of women’s rights issues in the emerging transitions and the aforementioned backlash have posed a variety of complex challenges for the women’s movements. Faced with these enormous challenges and possibilities, women’s rights activists have been struggling to forge ahead a democratic future inclusive and only possible with women’s rights and equality. The particular historical and contextual legacies that impact women’s movements in each country continue to bear on the current capacities, strategies, and overall preparedness of the women’s movements to take on such a challenge. Burdened with daily human rights violations in one context, with lack of resources and tools in another, with organizational tensions in a third, in addition to the constant attacks on them as activists, women human rights defenders have voiced their desire to be more equipped with knowledge and tools to be effective and proactive in engaging with these fast-changing environments. Conceptual clarity and greater understanding of notions and practices of democratization, transitional justice tools and mechanisms, political governance and participation processes, international and local mechanisms, movement building strategies, constitutional reform possibilities, and secularization of public space and government are important steps to defining future strategic action.
It is clear that feminists and women’s rights activists cannot wait for women’s rights to be addressed after transitions – issues must be addressed as the new power configurations are forming. Experiences of earlier moments of transition, namely from colonial rule, have clearly demonstrated that women’s rights have to be inherently part of the transition movement towards a more just and equal society.
[i]This and other context points are drawn from the report from Pre AWID Forum meeting on Women’s Rights in Transitions to Democracy: Achieving Rights, Resisting Backlash, collaboratively organized by AWID, the Equality Without Reservation Coalition, Global Fund for Women and Women’s Learning Partnership