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Women's key role in Middle East transition

Women must play a key role in the tran­si­tion to democ­racy in the Middle East and northern Africa in order to improve gender equality in the region, according to Valen­tine Moghadam, director of Northeastern’s Inter­na­tional Affairs and Middle East Studies pro­grams.

“Pos­i­tive out­comes for women depend on the pres­ence of req­ui­site socioe­co­nomic devel­op­ment and cul­tural fac­tors, as well as fem­i­nists mobi­lizing before, during, and after the tran­si­tions,” Moghadam said last Thursday at a con­fer­ence titled “Gender of the State and Pol­i­tics in the Middle East.”

Moghadam served as the keynote speaker on the first of the two-​​day con­fer­ence, which was spon­sored by the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties and its Inter­na­tional Affairs Pro­gram, as well as the North­eastern Human­i­ties Center and Peace Islands Insti­tute. The con­fer­ence drew scholars and speakers from Boston, Eng­land, and the Middle East, as well as other local or regional universities.

Moghadam’s address was based on an ongoing project that she began during the Arab Spring, a wave of protests and demon­stra­tions in the Arab world in 2011 that led to the ouster of rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Her findings—which draw from a lit­er­a­ture review of gov­ern­mental changes in Latin America and Eastern Europe fol­lowing the fall of the Soviet Union—focus on the prospects for women-​​friendly demo­c­ratic con­sol­i­da­tion in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, with a par­tic­ular emphasis on what tran­si­tional gov­ern­ments have done to ensure fem­i­nists’ values, aspi­ra­tions, and goals.

“The lit­er­a­ture points out that during tran­si­tions or in the course of the prepa­ra­tions of new elec­tions, women have mobi­lized across class and party lines to demand that incoming demo­c­ratic gov­ern­ments ensure women’s equal par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics,” Moghadam explained. “Yet not all democ­ra­cies have been accom­pa­nied by poli­cies and pro­grams in favor of women’s full cit­i­zen­ship and gender equality.”

These coun­tries, Moghadam said, have expe­ri­enced vastly dif­ferent results when it comes to gender equality post-​​Arab Spring. After Egyptian Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak was over­thrown in 2011, only nine women held seats in the more than 500 member par­lia­ment. But in Tunisia, after Pres­i­dent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, women were rep­re­sented in the four high com­mis­sions formed to run the country during the demo­c­ratic tran­si­tion and later con­sti­tuted 28 per­cent of the mem­bers of the Con­stituent Assembly.

Moghadam said the suc­cess in Tunisia could be partly attrib­uted to the civic skills and demo­c­ratic values of fem­i­nist orga­ni­za­tions working in those coun­tries. Sim­ilar groups in Egypt have cre­ated a coali­tion in an attempt to influ­ence the direc­tion of change, but were unsuccessful.

Last week’s conference—which also fea­tured a round­table dis­cus­sion on fem­i­nism in Iran during the Green Move­ment of 2009—had been in the works for more than a year, according to Berna Turam, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of soci­ology and inter­na­tional affairs at Northeastern.

She applauded the col­lab­o­ra­tion between North­eastern and Peace Islands Insti­tute, a New York-​​based orga­ni­za­tion that aspires to foster mutual respect and col­lab­o­ra­tion with the intent on devel­oping orig­inal and alter­na­tive per­spec­tives on vital issues.

“It is def­i­nitely a timely topic,” said Birol Ozturk, the former exec­u­tive director of Peace Islands Insti­tute who is now a research asso­ciate in the Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Physics. “The Middle East is reshaping and we should cer­tainly talk about the role of women and gender issues in this process.”

– By Joe O’Connell

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