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Since the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia more than six months ago, women have been on the front lines of change: protesting alongside men, blogging passionately and prolifically, covering the demonstrations as journalists and newscasters, and launching social media campaigns. From Tunis and Cairo to Riyadh and Sana’a, veiled and unveiled female protesters have become the iconic image of the Arab revolutions. Their defiance has surprised many in the West who have long viewed Arab women as oppressed victims of conservative patriarchy and religion. Yet young Arab women today are significantly better educated, marrying later, having fewer children, and more likely to work outside the home than their mother’s generation. Their demands for greater freedom have been building for years.
To strengthen and support the work of Arab women leaders throughout the MENA region, the United States should:
- Use economic leverage effectively. The United States, along with its G8 partners, has promised to invest in economic and social reforms throughout the Middle East. Some of those programs should be specifically targeted to strengthening the capacity of women NGO leaders, better preparing women for politics, and supporting women business leaders.
- Use political leverage effectively. As constitutions are rewritten, the inclusion of women’s rights should be carefully monitored. Washington should support local actors encouraging women-friendly amendments such as political quotas for women and laws to protect and extend women’s rights.
- Use media to shine a spotlight on women’s issues. U.S. policymakers should use their official bully pulpit to draw attention to the issues women face. The rights that women are fighting for in Tahrir Square and beyond reflect a broader anthem of human rights and dignity that the U.S. should firmly stand behind in official statements.
- Use back-channels to maintain focus and pressure on these issues. Administration officials should consistently raise women’s rights in high level bilateral meetings with Arab interlocutors. Private diplomacy is just as important as public diplomacy in putting pressure on leaders.
- Use convening power to build networks and strengthen women’s groups. The U.S. should encourage cross-country dialogue and invest in training to build capacity of women leaders in the region. Many of the issues they face are similar across borders, and they can learn from each other’s experiences.
- Pursue a nuanced approach toward the region’s various Islamist groups. The position of some Islamist leaders in the region is clearly at odds with women’s rights, and more broadly with democracy. Others, however, express support for democracy and adopt the language of human rights.