By Mona Lisa Mouallem, CNN
At the 15th annual Women in the World conference, held in New York City last Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced her concern about the future of women’s rights in the Middle East:
"In recent weeks, we have seen women on the front lines of progress in Egypt and Tunisia. Some of the earliest organizers ... that helped galvanize Egypt and Tunisia were smart, wired and committed young women. But unfortunately, in both countries, there is a very real danger that the rights and opportunities of women could be eroded in this transition period."
Indeed, in the aftermath of the revolutions, women have been sidelined from the formation of the new governments.
In Tunisia, only two women have been appointed to the transitional government. Ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had far more women in his cabinet. Conservative voices in Tunisia are also calling for the scaling back of Tunisia's Personal Status Code, a series of laws that have protected women's rights in the country for more than 50 years.
In Egypt, not a single woman has been appointed to the council in charge of revamping the old constitution. And when Egyptian women called for a million-woman march seeking equal rights for all Egyptians, only a few hundred showed up last week. These women were greeted by a large group of men hurling misogynistic insults.
The fact that Middle East revolutions are not heralding improvements in women’s rights may come as a surprise. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that women and men were protesting side by side in Tunis, pitching up tents in unison in Tahrir Square, and bringing food and water to those who couldn't leave the demonstrations.
So why – despite their important role in bringing about change – are Arab women getting sidelined now?
There are several possible answers.
First, most experts agree that the anti-government protests are, first and foremost, protests against the political and economic status quo. Arab women have been protesting against political regimes for decades, so their role in the recent protests – while seemingly revolutionary – isn't all that new and doesn't symbolize a victory for women's rights.
Second, even though the revolutions taking place are a step toward democracy, it is important to recognize the cultural reality in most of these countries.
"What people have to realize is that these are religiously conservative societies, so a democracy in a largely Islamic country would have religious tendencies," said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "Given that, we have to be honest with ourselves - there isn't much of a priority for women's rights."
Leila Austin, a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, considers it growing pains.
"If you look at revolutions throughout history, despite the idealism felt among the protesters, there is unfortunately a period of repression right afterwards. All the known 'contracts' have to get renegotiated – and there is always a battle going on between progressive and regressive forces. Women's issues are included in this."
So how will the revolutions taking place in the region affect women's rights? Is there a chance that women will become more marginalized than before?
Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East," believes that the effects of revolution will vary country by country for women. We asked Coleman to examine a few countries for us. Here’s what she had to say:
The protesters that have been gathering in Bahrain for weeks now are calling for the end of the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled the majority Shiite country for 230 years. But it is women that have comprised more than half of the protesting population, and their presence symbolizes a desire to participate more in politics.
Bahraini women earned the right to vote in 2006, they can run for election, and they enjoy more rights than their Saudi neighbors. Nevertheless, there remains inequality among the genders, especially where family law is concerned.
"While Bahrain's events are mainly about politics," Coleman said, "I'm hopeful that a better political outcome will benefit overall human and women's rights."
Hosni Mubarak was ousted February 11 after 30 years of dictatorship, and women of all ages played a huge role in his exit. While Egyptian women enjoyed more rights than their neighbors under Mubarak's rule, it was still the norm for women’s rights to be undermined.
While we don't know yet what a new government or new constitution will look like, there is already concern that women's rights will be sidelined and/or rolled back. In the weeks since Mubarak left, women have been excluded from the decision-making table.
"There's a lot of concern about Egypt, as there is real potential for backsliding," Coleman said. "Women's groups are not united, and there is no common platform advocating for women's rights."
Coleman remains optimistic, however, especially because "Egyptians' desire for Sharia is balanced by a strong demand for modernization."
Since Gadhafi came to power in the 1969 coup, he has claimed staunch support for women's rights, especially in the realm of education and employment. However, cultural norms and Libyan law continues to favor males, leading to the belief that much of Gadhafi’s attempts for change were more for political show than anything else.
Coleman is rather pessimistic about women's issues in Libya: "There is a brutal civil war happening; there are going to be tribal conflicts. Gadhafi trampled so much on human rights as it was, and was inconsistent in his approach to women's rights that, essentially, there's nothing written in stone for them. No matter what happens with Gadhafi, women's issues will be secondary."
Women's rights have increased steadily over the past decade in this monarchy. There are currently more women than men enrolled in universities, and women's participation in the work force is on the rise.
Like Bahrain, women's participation in the protests have less to do with rights and more to do with economic reform and a desire for all citizens to have more of a say in the government. Coleman believes that women’s issues will benefit in Bahrain and Oman if the protests there result in a more open and free society.
In Saudi Arabia, women's rights are highly restricted. Women are not allowed to drive or vote, and they are required to wear abayas and headscarves outside the home. Women are also not allowed to appear in court, and they find it very difficult to obtain a divorce.
Women's rights remain a contentious issue in Saudi Arabia between those who want change and those who favor the status quo. Opinion is divided even among women themselves, as many do not believe in secular reform. Coleman, however, believes that the current demonstrations – while political – will result in favor of an increase in women's rights.
"Already in these demonstrations, we've seen prominent Saudis on the side of moral reform, calling to lift the ban on driving and other laws,” she said. “I think women could actually benefit from the protests."
The protests that occurred in Tunisia in December and January succeeded in ousting its former president. Tunisians were calling for change in leadership in the face of increasing unemployment, inflation, corruption, and violation of civil liberties.
However, Tunisian women enjoyed nearly all the same rights as men under Ben Ali's leadership, and they made great strides in all fields including law, medicine and media.
Now, with Ben Ali gone, Tunisia has opened itself up to the possibility of regression on women’s rights. Nevertheless, Coleman is optimistic about the situation: "No matter who takes the reins, it seems there will be a pragmatic approach to Islam. We are already seeing evidence of this among the top leaders."
As it stands, Yemen is one of the least progressive countries in the world when it comes to women's rights. Here are some facts:
– Yemen has the largest gap in literacy rates between men and women in the world; only 35% of women are literate
– There is no minimum age for marriage, which means that many females find themselves with a husband when they are as young as 12
– If a woman wants to marry, she must ask a male relative for permission
– Only one member of Parliament is female out of 301
"Women's rights have been nearly nonexistent, so it's safe to say that it can only go up from here," Coleman said.
A sign that things might be on the up: One of the leaders of Yemen's protest movement, Tawakkul Karman, is a woman. For a couple of years now, Karman has been an outspoken champion for human rights.
"Along with standing up against the regime, Karman has been pushing a human-rights agenda and garnering support from many Yemeni women,” Coleman said. “So even though the current protests are not a movement specifically for women's rights, this has the potential to lead to later political freedom."