(valid only the actual speech delivered)
Let me introduce three points – I hope they will be useful for the discussion.
First, if you look to the role of women, the experience of post 89 democratic transitions in Europe is not particularly helpful. I would say that starting points are just too different. One could question, in general, whether the Arab awakening can be really conceived as a new ’89 – the nature of OSCE leads us in that direction.
But this is probably a false assumption – scholars from the Arab world would explain why their revolutions are more similar to the French one – another ’89 – than to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Just like the French revolution, the original inspiration of radical change will be interpreted case-by case – this is in fact happening in different countries of the Arab world.
In any case, this reference point is not particularly useful when we look in particular to the role of women – given, I repeat, huge differences in starting points.
The implication is that we can make a contribution to the women’s’ future in this region not using the 89 transition metaphor but using more general reference standards – drawing from the UN, more general European experience and so on.
On the other hand, the idea that civil and human rights, including women’s, are a legitimate topic for diplomatic action – this is the true legacy of the CSCE/OSCE – is and will remain key also in the Mediterranean. From this point of view, the OSCE/MED partnership is crucial and Italy is ready to contribute to its further evolution – as we are showing hosting this conference.
Second. There are growing concerns about the implications for the rights of women of the so-called Arab Spring – I would in any case prefer to use the term the Arab awakening. From Tunisia to Egypt the question mark is whether women risk a step backward. The Arab Awakening has meant a sudden empowerment by women and yet a rapid marginalisation of their presence and role. In other terms: while women have been among the key players of the protests – they took massively part in the revolts, in the first elections – they are now risking a set back.
Arab secular authoritarian regimes have in the past granted or promoted minorities and women’s rights out of their political interests, often times as a divide and rule tactical approach against other social and political groups. For them, it was also a way to align at least part of their policies with Western powers’ requests. As a consequence, sometimes, progressive changes have been imposed upon societies by above, rather than promoted and elaborated through a consensual approach. Unfortunately this has led to today’s frequent attacks on women’s rights and the social gains they have acquired in the past few decades.
Several women-friendly policies enshrined in progressive Personal Status codes, dealing with personal matters related to women and families, now bear a negative connotation because of their origin, because they were supported by dictators.
The European Union, the US and the rest of the international community however will continue to assess the success of the democratic transformations also through the prism of women’s engagement in these processes and their empowerment.
Tunisia has been at the forefront of regional gender equality; its progressive 1956 Family Law granted equality to men and women and legalized divorce and abortion- 19 years before abortion was legal in France. Tunisia is considered a trailblazer in the region in terms of women’s rights, and nobody expects a sudden backsliding.
The Tunisian transitional authorities adopted in April 2011 a gender parity law requiring equal numbers of women and men as candidates in the Constituent Assembly election. As a consequence of that, 27% of the national assembly is made up of women candidates.
Some however, despite this good electoral performance and promises to uphold women’s rights by the ruling party, hold fears that the sooner or later Islamists will start to curtail their freedoms. The debate on article 28 of last August Constitution draft framing the role of women as ‘complementary’ to men, rather than upholding gender equality, was a worrying signal, from this perspective.
Egypt is a very different context: despite a very active and prolonged participation of women during the revolution, when the policy-making process started, women were soon left out of the main emerging political parties and have been marginalised ever since. Differently from Tunisia, interim government immediately abolished the women quota of 64 parliamentary seats. As a consequence, only one woman was nominated to the interim cabinet that resigned in November 2011, only eight women were elected in the Egyptian People’s Assembly (=1,9%), a similar outcome occurred in the Shura Council elections, where women represent less than 3% of the seats. Concerning women’s rights, the recently released Constitutional draft, in its article 68, establishes that gender equality should be promoted only insofar as ‘it does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic sharia’, thereby openly contradicting with the constitutional provision on equality of all citizens and the rejection of any form of discrimination. The recently added article on Al Azhar, a religious and unelected body, which stipulates that the legislative process will have to take into account Al Azhar’s interpretation of Sharia will dilute the democratic quality of political decisions.
The fact remains that only when women rights are affirmed and protected, we can talk of a democratic exercise. This shows the close link between gender equality and sustainable democracy. Democratization in the Med cannot be reached without enhancing the participation of women in political and public life – regardless of their religious belief or ethnic origin. From this point of view the OSCE/ODIHR study on gender equality in elected office could be particularly useful
Third: this is equally true for economic development.
There is no need to repeat that where women are marginalized, economic efficiency is seriously curtailed. The MENA region has the lowest rates of female labour force participation around the world, at 26%, compared with a global average of 52%.
The economic situation in the Mediterranean remains fragile. As an average, unemployment is high – especially for youth and women, with marked inactivity for small and medium sized enterprises.
This is even worse for young women, where the gender gap is particularly high. The untapped economic potential of an increased female participation in the labour market is a waste no country has the luxury to accept.
Let me add that delivering a more inclusive and strong economic growth is a challenge Europe shares with North Africa. Unleashing women’s potential and investing in women, which we know has a multiplying effect on societies’ well being, is crucial both in developing and developed countries in Europe’s neighbourhood. This is especially so with economies in flux, both globally and regionally, and with persistent global financial instability.
Equally, it remains of utmost importance to increase women’s participation in politics.
We also know that economic empowerment stems from granting women full citizenship rights. Now we are at a critical juncture.
I would conclude by saying that one of the pitfalls of the women’s rights discourse is that among Arab countries it is commonly perceived as associated with Western colonial domination, state feminism, and the “democracy promotion” agenda of the international donors.
The challenge ahead for women in North Africa and the Middle East is, more than ever, to produce locally-generated discourses that can have local ownerships. They need to create broad constituencies and powerful networks able to influence the national political agenda.
The challenge for Europe is to continue to pay attention to the respect of women’s rights in the region and sustain meaningful action in support of women, such as the latest UN Women-EU Commission partnership on women’s empowerment, “Spring Forward for Women”, a new joint regional programme for the Southern Mediterranean region aimed at empowering women both politically and economically.