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.
A Pivotal Moment in Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s struggle with democratization is a critical case of women’s rights and equality. Following Presidents Obama and Karzai’s recent joint-announcement on America’s accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is unclear what will happen to the hard-won women’s rights once NATO troops leave the country after 2014.
Since the 2001 invasion, women have gradually worked their way back into civil society. Many women, a number of whom are now members of the National Assembly of Afghanistan, also serve as government ministers. There are several female officers in Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, while women account for over 24 percent of Afghans in the medical profession.
Since 2001, millions of girls have entered school in Afghanistan, and the proportion of girls in primary school enrollment has risen to nearly forty-percent. Despite strong progress, Afghan women’s school attendance records are worse and their dropout rates are higher than their male counterparts. Additionally, women still face the risk of a strong cultural, tribal, and familial backlash.
When President Hamid Karzai resides over a nation that jails women for running away from abusive husbands or family members, or traveling without a male guardian, his actions effectively encourage the nation to further repress women. In March 2012, for instance, Karzai signed a “code of conduct,” which contains provisions that the Associated Press summarized as: "women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices." Perversely, husbands are allowed to beat wives when Sharia-compliant reasons are involved.
The U.S. has a responsibility to help Afghanistan make the transition to a country that embraces stronger elements of democracy. In practice, America must remain committed to ensuring that the Taliban’s intimidation tactics do not slow or destroy the advance of women’s rights – despite evidence that this is precisely what the Taliban aspires to.
It is wrong that women’s rights are part of Afghan politics, which only seems to take them seriously when the international community is watching. There is strong potential for political parties or cultural or religious factions to abandon women’s rights until more lucrative bargaining chips arise.
If some form of democracy is to succeed, women’s rights and equality cannot be held hostage by extremists who seek to move their nations backwards.
The New Myanmar: Cautious Optimism
Moving eastward, we see signs of a slow democratic transition in Myanmar, which provides a more optimistic picture of women’s rights and role in society and government. President Obama’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visits to the country over the last year further signal cautious approval of this democratic shift.
Other Western leaders, including Tony Blair and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, traveled to Myanmar and held meetings with President Thein Sein to discuss political reform.
Opposition and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest following general elections in 2010, as part of government reform toward a more liberal democracy. In June of 2012, San Suu Kyi traveled to Norway to receive a Nobel Peace Prize that she was initially awarded in 1991 while under house arrest by the military junta. She is now a Member of Parliament and an outspoken advocate for democracy and human rights in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi, as well as a number of other women leaders and activists, paid a high price in the fight for democracy. While reforms slowly emerge, the country still has a long way to go to be a more just country that fully incorporates women’s rights.
Currently, school enrollment ratios for boys and girls in Myanmar have almost reached parity. However, decades of economic and social inequality and unequal labor participation have made girls vulnerable to sex trafficking and exploitation, a condition that exists in other Southeast Asian nations as well.
Conservative cultural traditions dissuade women from becoming empowered leaders. Women are often viewed as subservient to their husbands or fathers. But as Myanmar pursues a hopefully meaningful and lasting transition to democracy, women’s voices are becoming louder and stronger.
We have already seen slight changes in women’s participation. Many prominent women are in leadership and decision-making roles, while the majority of doctors, nurses, and teachers are female.
Before Myanmar’s parliamentary elections in April 2012, only eighteen women held seats in the parliament’s 613-member body. After the elections, it increased by more than a dozen. While a small and incremental improvement for a nation that the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women ranks 135 out of 143 in terms of global female political participation, this is a step in the right direction.
Egypt: Constitutional Rights Move in a Worrying Direction
In Egypt, we have seen events unfolding that are so critical that they call attention to women’s rights in Asia and globally. This issue may not be on the radar in China, India, or elsewhere in Asia, but that is changing.
In Egypt, women, like men, have called for an end to dictatorship. They are speaking out for accountability, transparency, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. For the first time in their lives, many women believed that their fellow male protestors treated them as equals.
Women’s experiences during the uprising led them to hope their newfound equality would translate into new social, political, and economic realities in the post-Mubarak regime. Sadly and painfully, however, they soon learned that their power and presence in the revolution, which overthrew the regime, did not lead to an equal voice at the table in the government that replaced it. They hoped to negotiate the future of Egypt’s democracy but found themselves marginalized once again.
The country’s recently drafted and publically approved constitution remains an extremely controversial and polarizing document. Many believe that this Islamic-backed constitution, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties are moving Egypt in the wrong direction, largely away from the revolution’s true democratic intentions.
Furthermore, women’s rights, along with many other provisions in the constitution, are vague. For example, there is no mention of women’s rights being protected by the State in accordance with international human rights standards. Article ten states that the family must remain the basis for society and is founded on “religion, morality and patriotism.” Yet, history has shown that women’s rights violations often occur at the hands of religious or cultural tradition.
Additionally, article two of the constitution states that Islam is the official religion of the state and the principle source of legislation. This allows for laws to be based on a reader’s particular interpretation of Islam. Much of Egypt’s interpretation of Islam was conducted centuries ago, and the meanings still stand. For many observers, such language permits (some might say, encourages) discrimination.
Women make up more than fifty-two percent of the population and thirty-three percent of women are the sole breadwinners for their families. Thus, the future of Egypt’s democracy and economy fundamentally depends on women. However, public support for their involvement and participation in the formation of democracy is, at best, thin.
Enduring Principles Must Prevail
Despite daunting political, social, economic, and cultural challenges, universal and fundamental principles have a place in all societies – and must endure.
One such principle is that decisions in society and government are more informed and just when they reflect and encompass the different perspectives and participation of all citizens from all backgrounds, regardless of gender.
In fact, promoting women’s rights and greater participation in civil society merely for the sake of political correctness, or to advance some arbitrary definition of equality, is not the goal. All democracies, both old and new, should strive to produce more peaceful, free, and prosperous societies that are able to harness the ideas of all citizens to make decisions and serve as leaders.
Women increasingly are speaking out, but hard-line political factions and religious zealots who seek, as they have for millennia, to infringe on women’s rights, are opposing them. Diminishing women’s rights not only hinders political, economic and societal equality, but also undermines the progress of democracy.
The fast-arising force of greater democracy and opportunity for women, which is just emerging on the political horizon in many societies, will dramatically reshape the world. States must get behind this shift or else be overcome by it.
Torrey Taussig is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy,Tufts University. She focuses on U.S. foreign policy, U.S. diplomatic efforts to advance global women's rights and equality and issues relating to American grand strategy.