In regions beset by war and revolutionary change, women's rights must be safeguarded for the good of the many
The woman in Tahrir Square was worried. “The men were keen for me to be here when we were demanding that Mubarak should go,” she told me when I visited Cairo. “But now he has gone, they want me to go home”.
Some of the bravest people in the countries battling for a democratic future are women. They are doctors and lawyers, writers and human rights activists. They want a form of democracy in which they can play as great a role as men. However, there are worrying signs that this may be denied to them.
True democracy requires not just free political parties and free elections. It requires a generosity of spirit and a willingness to view one's fellow citizens as fundamentally equal.
Leave aside the moral principle for the moment: I shall return to this later. Think of the waste of talent that would flow from a refusal to break with inequality and sexism. Consider, for example, Mona Seif, one of the active participants in the protests in Tahrir Square. She grew up knowing her father, a human rights lawyer, only through her visits to the prison where he was held and frequently tortured.
She told one interviewer of the role that women had played in the events that began on 25 January: “It was a female friend of mine who told me all the details and about arranging the distribution of food, collecting money and getting blankets. It was women who arranged the stage from which we made announcements and organised ourselves. Even providing the medical aid on the field while people were getting shot at and wounded. Women and girls were involved everywhere.”
Common sense, and a wish to tap the talents of all Egyptians, would suggest that Mona and her friends should have the same chance as any man to play a leading role in the new democracy we all hope to see.
But there are concerns, recorded by Human Rights Watch and others, that too little is being done to end the discrimination against women that was one of the hallmarks of Egypt’s past. The amendments to the constitution, approved in the referendum on 19 March, enhance the chances of bringing democracy to the country. I hope the absence of any reference to equality for women was an oversight, not a sign that some of the bad old ways will endure.
In Afghanistan, the situation is even more fraught. The toppling of the Taliban in 2001 brought hope to millions of women. They could now go to school, apply for senior jobs and stand for parliament. But progress is slow and frequently disrupted. A decade later, just 12% of Afghan women are literate. Formally, women have the same rights as men. And some are playing an important role. Among the impressive women I met last year was Brigadier General Shafiqa Quraishi. She is the director of gender, human and children’s rights in the ministry of the interior. Yet she knows how much more needs to be done to erase the culture of male superiority. It is a fact that women working for the Afghan government, or foreign companies, or even local schools, are often targeted by the insurgents. The lucky ones receive a letter warning them to quit, and resign to stay alive. The unlucky ones are simply shot dead.
Think, too, of Radhia Nasraoui and Sana Ben Achour, two courageous human rights defenders whom I met in Tunisia. They, too, know the tough challenge that women in the region face on the road to democracy, fighting for an open society with respect for all.
In purely practical terms, it would be crazy for a new democracy to close the door to the leadership skills of the many women who have been so active in setting their countries on the path of freedom.
Part of the European Union’s aims in helping countries put down the roots of deep democracy – the kind that lasts and will not get blown away in years to come – is to help the many women like Mona Seif and Shafiqa Quraishi achieve their ambitions of building societies in which discrimination of every kind is banished. We have the expertise and, with others, the resources to make a difference, from crafting anti-discrimination laws to training many more women to become judges, civil servants – and politicians.
I plan to apply the same standards to Libya. Here, too, some remarkable women have come to the fore. One is Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer who led the sit-in in the attorney general’s office in Benghazi – the action that converted the initial anti-Gaddafi demonstrations into an uprising that cost Libya’s dictator his second largest city.
In purely practical terms, it would be crazy for a new democracy to close the door to the leadership skills of the many women who have been so active in setting their countries on the path of freedom. But there is a larger imperative. Discrimination – whether on grounds of gender, race, religion or sexuality – makes any society in which it holds sway meaner, more divisive and more narrow-minded. True democracy requires not just free political parties and free elections. It requires a generosity of spirit and a willingness to view one’s fellow citizens as fundamentally equal.
My concern, then, is not simply, or even mainly, about gender. In many countries, once the old order has been banished, the battle for women’s rights is becoming the decisive contest between prejudice and democracy. Widespread prejudice is a barrier to real democracy. One of the great challenges facing the European Union in the years to come is to help full democracy to triumph.
Catherine Ashton is a British Labour politician who, in 2009, became the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy