In the aftermath of the political upheavals in the Arab world, women's rights have largely fallen by the wayside. Human rights organizations are concerned that gender equality has actually taken a step backward.
They stood at the forefront of the popular protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Habib Bourghiba Avenue in Tunis and Martyrs' Square in Tripoli. During the so-called "Arab Spring," women successfully fought side by side with men for a democratic new beginning. Yet the fruits of their labor have not been harvested.
"We have observed with concern an increase in sexual assaults against women in public places as well as the veiling of women," Dagmar Schumacher, the head of the UN Women's bureau in Brussels, told DW.
The Islamic television station Maria TV, which has been on-air in Egypt since October, allows only fully veiled women on its broadcasts. There have been reports out of Egypt and Libya of an increase in sexual assaults. Schumacher fears a "step backward for women in comparison to the situation before the Arab Spring."
In Tunisia, there is an ongoing debate about whether the country's new constitution, likely to be passed next year, should consider men and women to be "complementary." Full equality, legally guaranteed in Tunisia since the 1950s, appears to be in danger under the government of the Islamist Ennahda Party.
"The women bloggers, who were so forcefully engaged in the revolutions of the Arab Spring, have been sidelined," Schumacher said. "And when it comes to drawing up constitutions, suddenly gender equality is not so important anymore. That has led to a high degree of frustration among women."
Women - the losers in peace?
Women are often disadvantaged - and not just in the Arab world - when society is being reordered after war or armed conflict, said Heide Göttner, who works with the aid organization Amica.
"Through these conflicts, certain gender role patterns are uprooted," Göttner told DW. When men go off to serve as combatants in armed conflicts, women often take on public roles and responsibilities in their place, she continued.
But as soon as the men return to everyday civilian life, these same women are often banished to the home, Göttner said.
"As a reaction against experiences of persistent violence and the militarization of society, antiquated roles are often brought back," she said. "Women are intentionally driven into dependent relationships or traditional roles."
In Germany, this phenomenon was clearly observable during the 1950s. The so-called "Trümmerfrauen" (rubble women) rebuilt the country after the Second World War, while many of the men were still being held as prisoners by the Allies. But during the economic miracle of the 1960s, the men ruled the working world, while women took care of the home and children.
In 1981, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women came into force. Since then, it has been ratified by almost all of the UN member states. The countries swept by the Arab Spring are also signatories. According to the convention, women are not only protected from state discrimination before courts and in the labor market, for example. They also are protected from violence and human rights violations in the private sphere. But these rights are useless if they only exist on paper.
"Domestic violence is a problem that is not discussed publicly," said Göttner, of the aid organization Amica. "As a consequence, the reactions of the police and authorities are negative."
Women in search of help are often turned away and sent back home. That's why Amica, which was founded in 1993 as a reaction to violence against women in the Bosnian War, does not just work with women's groups.
"The women have to develop a relationship of trust with the authorities," Göttner said. "That's why our projects include a class for people in key positions with the police, judiciary and health and social institutions."
Educating the community
The integration of political and religious leaders as well as work with husbands, fathers and brothers is just as important, according to Schumacher's experience working at UN Women.
"We implemented a program in Lebanon in which we specifically sought out dialogue with men about the equality of women," she said. "Afterwards, many of the participants said that it wasn't clear to them beforehand that women and men really are equal."
According to Schumacher, this experience not only "changed the lives of these men, but also the lives of entire communities."
For many women, the optimism of the Arab Spring has been followed by a disappointing autumn. In order to redress these setbacks, Schumacher believes that it's necessary for "women to sit at the negotiating table in post-conflict situations." Although that rarely happens, it's the only way that issues important to women will not fall by the wayside, she said.
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