On September 12th, during the Human Rights Council 24th session, WILPF and CARE International jointly organized the side-event: “Arab Spring or Arab Autumn? Women’s participation in the MENA region”. [1]

What are the major challenges to women’s participation in transition and state building in the MENA region and how can the international community best address some of these challenges? How can the international human rights framework and the Women Peace and Security agenda be used to strengthen women’s participation in the MENA region? What are the key priorities for civil society organisations in the MENA region to ensure women’s equal participation and prevent backlashes of women rights?

Those were some of the questions discussed during the side-event. The discussion engaged member states and relevant stakeholders in a dialogue to understand the emerging trends in the region and find means to better promote and secure women’s rights and participation.

The panelists included activists and experts from the region who shared their experiences and recommendations.

  • SHERINE IBRAHIM, Cairo-based CARE Middle East deputy director, talked about the women and youth participation from a regional perspective.
  • IMAN MANDOUR, member of board of trustees and treasurer of the Center For Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, presented major challenges facing Egyptian women’s political participation.
  • ZAHRA LANGI, gender specialist, co-founder of Libyan women’s Platform for Peace and member of the Arab Women Think Tank talked about the recent developments and the critical issues at stake for women in transitional Libya.
  • MADELEINE REES, secretary general of WILPF briefed the audience on the lessons learnt and how to move forward in view of her experience in the region and with the mechanisms of the international human rights bodies.

The discussion brought about women’s rights in the MENA region, portraying both opportunities and challenges. Women have played key roles in the uprisings as leaders and active participants, but now as the region is under increased militarization women are suffering from the consequences.

A Step Forward or Falling Backward?

Quoting one Yemeni female activist, featured in CARE resent report [2], who was protesting every Friday during the Yemeni uprising:

To join the protests on Friday mornings and pray Al Juma’a with other women, I had to take shortcut routes by walking through rugged mountains every Thursday night. After what I had done, no force on earth dares to neglect me.

Sherine Ibrahim highlighted the rapidly changing power dynamics and political principles in countries that brought down tyrants. The context is evolving very fast and the actors who came to the forefront during the uprisings are different from those that CARE has engaged with in the past.

However, according to Ibrahim, there are opportunities to engage with actors, and especially young men and women who are catalysts of change, considering that the majority of whom are not affiliated with any political or women group. They come together to demand social justice. One of the most important things that they bring to the new space is being young, creative and dynamic; working in a pace that is much faster than the space of the societies two and a half years ago — before the revolutions started.

Looking at the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it is worthwhile asking why is the engagement and participation by young men and women is often compromised in the political arena?

Women representation in politics has faced quite similar challenges in different MENA countries. In Yemen, national dialogue took place but the issues of including women rights have been quite neglected. Egypt had massive independent women electorates, however in the parties list, the majority, irrespective of their religious orientation, had women in the 6th or 7th line. There have been only two parties with women topping the list. On another level, representation of women in parliament was not helpful when, for example, female members of parliament blocked a law on sexual harassment arguing that it’s the fault of girls not dressing properly.

In regard to international conventions, Egypt maintains its 4 reservations on CEDAW, which are to some incompatible with the core and purpose of the convention. Most recently in March 2013, the Egyptian government condemned the CSW 57th session agreed conclusions on the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls arguing that the draft resolution contain articles that “contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family”. Iman Mandour mentioned that “women shall be well-prepared to face yet another attack trying to undermine the effect of international conventions”. A crucial step towards gender equality starts with lifting reservations to the CEDAW. “Cultural relativism is used as an excuse to lower the ceiling” Mandour added.

Democratic Toolkit

Zahra Langi shared her experience working on women’s rights and gender issues in post-conflict Libya. She started by asking how much the international community is responsible for failing Libya transition today.

Rewinding to the beginning of Libyan revolution, women were initiators, actors at the forefront of the revolution, and organizers of events and summits in the international level. Similar to other Arab countries, women were excluded in post-revolution Libya. Women activists and politicians are now targeted by militia groups. Ironically, those militia groups are closely tied with the General National Congress, the same body that was elected through peaceful and democratic elections in August 2012, succeeding the National Transitional Council. Earlier in August 2011, the NTC was pushed by the international community to introduce and stick to a road-map for the transition of Libya to a constitutional democracy.

To answer the question of the responsibility of the international community, the “democratic toolkit” introduced by the international community needs to be re-visited. Multi party system, parliament elections, free media, numerical representation of women in parliament, were all ticked in the international-enforced democratic checkboxes. The whole democratic transition was reduced into elections. “But to what extent one can say that peace or security are achieved in Libya?” Langi wondered.

Joining the Dots

Madeleine Rees emphasized that things have changed dramatically, not only in the MENA region. There is a growing young generation with new ways of organizing their activism. Member states and donors who really support civil society are facing a new challenge; how to give support financially to a social movement, which does not have a program or a structure?

Before understanding and adapting to the changes, the contextualization is fundamentally important. In the case of Libya, no one seems to really know what is the impact of the policies in relation to the lack of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process and the consequences on women participation. “With the guns still around, do women have to take up arms in order to actively participate?” asked Rees.

Libya is a similar case to Bosnia and Kosovo in terms of the conceptualization of human rights as being fundamentally linked to democratization, but the question is what democratization, when and how? If democracy means rushing to elections straight after the conflict, this will only institutionalize the factions that were struggling for power and exclude women from the process because they were not having guns. Real democratization would mean real fundamental grassroots participation. Rushing elections, lining up names of elites or ex-combatants as main electorates will only culminate in “gender relations” being equal to “sex equalities”, and so the numbers game will prevail. Women would get 5 or 10 percent and then the numerical representation box is ticked, but again, the intelligent question is who is representing and whom is being represented? The numerical game fixes gender relations in a political framework, which is based on power relations, which is based on militarization context.

Going back to the Human Rights Council, human rights defenders in the council including member states should start getting engaged in joining the dots approach — the idea of trying to make sure that we actually put different parts of the processes together. Simply it means that we have accurate grassroots information, so it can then be translated to human rights terminology through using the tools that were developed by the OHCHR and other human rights bodies —such as the UPR. Disarmament and security are worthwhile looking at to see how they fit into the system.

Human rights obligations flow from this multilateral system. It should be the same with all the international financial institutions, and with the development banks so that they feed into and are accountable to the bodies that work with human rights. “There is no good in the HRC being

brilliant on gender relations if the IMF is bailing out a country and absolutely ignoring any gender dimensions in the loans they are providing.” Rees added.

In line with joining the dots approach and in parallel to supporting civil society and women’s rights advocates, member states can start looking to whom guns are being sold because if there is an unstable situation, gender relations are falling apart and the place is flooded with weapons, this is not helping. That is why WILPF really welcomes the resolution [3] that is being drafted on arms control because that will fit with the Arms Trade Treaty, which would compel the states not to sell weapons to where there are potential violations of human rights or International Humanitarian Law. Wouldn’t that be nice if it is done in Syria?

It is about dialogue, it is about gender relations, and it is how we put all of those together in understanding a context and having a proper human rights response. That will mean interventions, but not military, but means interventions with joining the dots, upstream and early. Otherwise, it is not a multilateral system, it is a system where you have different blocks and they are not linking. And by doing that, then we might avoid having a discussion about another Syria within the foreseeable future.


WILPF and CARE International recommend the following to member states and involved actors:

  • Place women rights at the heart of the transitional political process.
  • Create space and entry points for young men and women to operate.
  • Conduct national consultation prior to aid agreements and include women in the agenda.
  • Identify frameworks to enforce mutual accountability between the donor and the recipient.
  • Link the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council with other parts of the multilateral system in every resolution and intervention.


[1] Download the side-event poster here: WILPF and CARE Side-event, September 12th, 2013 poster.

[2] Download the CARE International report here: Arab spring or arab autumn? Women’s political participation in the uprisings and beyond: Implications for international donor policy.

[3] The resolution was adopted in the HRC 24th session. You can read the text of the resolution here: Impact of arms transfer on human rights in armed conflicts. Read WILPF International blog on the resolution here: New Resolution Adopted in the Human Rights Council