For too long, women were viewed as victims — of discrimination and illiteracy, of violence, and confined to deferential positions in society because of once-unbreakable cultural and religious traditions.
But as the tide of democracy sweeps the globe, women are becoming a growing force on the world stage. We are seeing a new voice of activism emerge, which is speaking out to defend freedom and advance civil liberties and human rights.
This movement seeks to dismantle repressive regimes in Asia and the Middle East while working to build more just, progressive and prosperous nations. This revolution is occurring around the world—from Asia and the Middle East to America.
Despite the strident clamor for democracy, the role of women in democratization is dramatically less clear and powerful than it should be. Unfortunately, this is precisely the moment when their voices are needed most.
The global shift towards democracy is more than a feminist movement calling for women’s rights and gender equality above and beyond democratic progress. Rather, women in states throughout Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere are demanding rule of law, strong institutions, social justice, and economic opportunity for all citizens – not just for women. Critically, they stand for the broader cause of democratization, freedom, and self-autonomy.
In recent months, we have seen several political and social shifts. Consider South Korea’s first ever woman President, America’s improving relationship with Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, India’s very public condemnation of rape, and Egypt’s “democratic constitution.”
Some observers might assume that states, which previously treated women as second class citizens, are becoming more just. Perhaps women are being treated more equally under the law, gaining more respect in society, and acquiring greater power to shape political, economic, and social change.
These conclusions, however, are premature and misleading. Worryingly, women have gained very little from these political shifts. To be direct, we have a long way to go in addressing one of this generation’s foremost challenges: strengthening women’s rights and equality.
Growing Emphasis on Women’s Empowerment
The issue of women’s empowerment, rights, and equality has received dramatic attention in recent years. Consider such public initiatives as Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky movement and the role of spokeswomen from Arianna Huffington to Donna Karan.
Women in government, including prominent examples such as Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel and Michelle Bachelet of Chile, accelerate the modern women’s movement. In 2010, the United Nations took the historic step of championing women’s rights when the General Assembly created the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, better known as UN Women.
Women’s empowerment is a pervasive theme in policy discussions in government and civil society globally. Today, thousands of non-profit organizations support women’s educational, reproductive, political and economic rights and opportunities. Policymakers should understand that the role of women in democratic reform is a pivotal element of development and stability.
We see evidence of this shift in Asia and the Middle East. The democratic shifts taking place in greater Asia provide a lens through which to consider the growing social, economic, and political roles of women throughout the region.