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.”