Arab Women Shaping the Future -- Now, More Than Ever

As the world marks International Women's Day this week, it's time to look ahead to the critical role women in the Arab world are playing in framing their futures, and that of the region's future after last year's Arab Spring. It seems somewhat ironic that given women are over 50 percent of the world's population, women's rights have yet to become an issue that moves the general public.

But that's changing now with the powerful women we've seen take to the streets in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and even in Syria. It's a new era for women, and an era where men need to realize women's voices need to be heard. An era where women need to be better integrated in the areas of politics, business, education and all levels of society.   To put some things in context: the U.N. says 70 percent of the world's poor are women, yet when women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man. And the International Fund for Agricultural Development says less than 2 percent of land in the developing world is owned by women. This is hardly the way to treat an 'equal' is it? That's why women's voices are finally being heard, particularly from the Arab world.   Simply put, success for women will come from how well-organized we are and what social and other resources we have to work with. Poverty and politics are the crux for women's empowerment. It's critical we are as grassroots as possible, so that we work at the level of the village in rural areas to help end poverty and illiteracy. For instance, the literacy rate for women in Tunisia is now over 70 percent, yet 27 percent of the labor force is female. Women make up nearly two-thirds of university students, compared with two-fifths in Egypt.   Now is the time for women to play the game differently. We must build bridges around the youth, progressive men and all those who believe in human rights, equality, justice and freedom. We need to encourage women to run for office, and get men to support their goals too. We can do that by examining and emulating each other's achievements and by lobbying for equality in the new constitutions, which are being written in the post Arab Spring environment. 

They include Article 19 in Morocco in the new constitution, which broadly guarantees women's equality with men, in terms of "civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights."  Equally important is the need to assess if the Islamist governments are taking us away from gender mainstreaming and more toward a sidelined, "women in development" approach.        Back in 2002, the first Arab Human Development Report ever published cited the lack of women's rights as one of three factors, along with lack of political freedoms and poor education, that most hampered the region's progress. Ten years later in 2012, and with a new era of democracy unfolding, women sense their liberation. They know their rights and we know it's critical for long-term stability that women are better integrated into all levels of society. Our time is now.

This isn't the first time we've seen strong female voices, but it is the first time we are seeing Arab women use their voices with such strength and solidarity. In 1957 Egypt became the first country in the Arab world to elect a woman to parliament, having allowed votes for women only the year before. During the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser girls were encouraged to go to school, and women exhorted to join the workforce, as part of the general push for economic development. That's what we need to see today, and that's what's starting to happen.

No one better exemplifies this more than the so-called "Queen of the Arab Spring," Yemen's Tawwakul Karman the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, noted by the esteemed committee for her non violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." The West must also realize that because some Muslim women are veiled, does not mean Muslim women aren't strong.

Women should not be holding ourselves to the standard of repressive countries, but rather to the most progressive countries on women's rights issues, and we need to do so by working alongside men on peace and security issues. Sustainable peace requires the full participation of women at all stages of the peace process, yet as history has shown, they have been largely excluded from formal efforts to develop and implement fresh, workable solutions to seemingly intractable struggles.  Their involvement in these mechanisms, which prevent conflict, stop war, and stabilize regions damaged by warfare, is essential.

As the founder of the organization Karama in Egypt, I am committed to achieving concrete and measurable results. We have already mobilized national and regional partners and are galvanized men and women in lobbying for women's rights into new and existing laws. Karama means 'dignity' in Arabic. We have seen the dignity with which hundreds of thousands of women across North Africa and the Arab world have taken to the streets for their chance to be heard. Now the World is finally listening.