Nobel Women’s Initiative’s new report, Unfinished Revolution, illustrates the price women activists pay as they push for change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It also highlights the invaluable contributions they are making in their societies.
Facing risks to their freedom and their very lives, women are working to advance peace, democracy, and human rights in the region, while making some important gains for women’s rights and gender equity.
Linking democracy, human rights, and women’s rights
During and since the 2011 Arab Spring, women have been at the forefront of pro-democracy protests and movements across the region. In Sudan, for example, women made up some 70% of those on the streets in the 2018 protests that led to the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir. Here and elsewhere, the struggle for women’s rights is entwined with the broader struggle against corruption and tyranny, and to advance respect for human rights overall.
Thanks to the courage of women willing to risk harsh penalties for defying unjust laws or representing fellow activists in court, some modest gains can be seen in legal reforms in countries across the region. These include changes in family codes in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco that accord more rights to wives and mothers, and the introduction of laws to protect women from violence in Lebanon and Morocco, among others.
Women have also seen some gains in political representation in parts of the region.
But one of their main breakthroughs has been in breaking the taboo on questions of gender equality. These issues are now openly debated in public and in the institutions of government. But progress remains fragile, with small openings set against the heavy-handed grip of authoritarian male elites.
A place at the peace table
Despite international commitments to increase their role in negotiations, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding, women remain on the margins of key peace processes in the region. While demanding their rightful seat at the table, they are actively promoting justice and peace in their war-torn homelands.
In Yemen, women have been largely excluded from the UN-led peace process since war broke out in 2014. Yet they play a major role outside formal peace processes—working to end child recruitment, open humanitarian corridors, evacuate families from the frontlines, and secure the release of prisoners.
Syrian women are likewise underrepresented in formal peace processes, despite their increasing role as household heads and in holding their frayed society together. They have largely been channeled into advisory bodies, with little direct role in negotiations. Through organizations such as the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, women are making themselves heard and demanding at least 30% representation in all tracks of negotiation, including in current talks towards a new constitution.
“During the war, the weapon of choice was rape. We used that to look at laws that related to sexual violence, [which] was called a private issue. At first, we did not know how to talk about this. But with the shock of what happened in Darfur, we began to work on these issues.”
Former Director of the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre in Khartoum, Sudan
“After the creation of the Board and Committee, there were formal negotiations in 2016 where three women from the opposition side participated. It was clear that as an advisory committee we were being excluded … We had to fight to be allowed to stay at the same hotel where the negotiations were taking place. We were denied the badges needed to get access to the space in the hotel where the negotiations were being held … [W]e did not receive any files. There was no official way to be included in what was taking place at the negotiations table … We realized that we needed to be seen as political actors in order to participate … We created the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.”
Representative of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in New York and founding member of the Syrian Non-violence Movement and Syrian Woman’s Political Movement