Arab Spring for Him, Arab Winter for Her

So tell me, please. Whose spring is it, anyway?

The latest from Tripoli: Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, reveling in the successful overthrow of tyranny and Qaddafi and the triumph of Islam, declares to his people that an old law restricting the number of wives per husband will be henceforth abolished. He did not discuss future elections, mind you. He did not mention what new democratic notions would be implemented. He did not discuss improvements in the judicial system.

Instead, the head of Libya’s new and improved interim government informed oppressed Libyans all over the country that “Sharia allows polygamy.”

Yes it does, and Western nations—like France, which refuse to allow women to walk around completely covered, or Italy and America, which permit women to vote, divorce, inherit, pursue professions, and control their offspring as well as their own money—should have thought of this before creating alliances with groups who take Islamic law literally. Which also means groups who think women have basically no rights—aside from the right to disappear. In other words, a military alliance between Libyans and Western powers should have had more in mind than just the end of Qaddafi’s rule.

Under the old regime, the law regarding multiple marriages was fairly simple and direct. It declared that if some man wished to take a second partner, then Wife No. 1 had to agree to his acquisition of any new spouse. Imagine what a damper that was on universal compliance with Islamic law. Abdel-Jalil finds this sort of spousal-agreement law ripe for abolition. It must, he hammered home, “be stopped.” 

But why end this column with Libya’s balmy weather? Springtime in what used to be a fairly secular Tunisia has meant that in recent weeks the country’s main Muslim party, Ennahda, after a 90 percent turnout, captured a majority of the vote. Not good news for, say, non-Muslims? Or non-autocrats? Or non-men?

Don’t you believe it. Almost everyone in power is perfectly sanguine. UN chief Ban Ki-moon solemnly refers to the recent results as a “landmark election” and a “key step in the democratic transition of the country.” The European Union has hailed the election as a superb example of “democratic fervor.”

Equally significant: Tunisia’s new assembly, about 40 percent of which will go to Ennahda, will vote on the fate of individual rights: among them, women’s rights. And say what you will about the corrupt Ben Ali family, which once ruled Tunisia, but it was very strong on women’s rights: men were not permitted to divorce simply by uttering a few words; nor were they permitted multiple wives. These days, as a recent Financial Times dispatch from Tunis points out, bearded “Salafis, or ultraconservative Islamists whose women don veils,” are noticeable on the streets of the capital city, and “some fear they will add pressures on political leaders to veer away from liberalism.”

“Look at Iran. Do not repeat our mistakes,” the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi told the Woman’s Forum for Society and the Economy in France last month. Women who helped overthrow the Shah back in 1979, Ebadi pointed out, also thought they could demand—and receive—perfect equality with men after the revolution.

And guess what happened?

All those brave women demonstrating on behalf of Springtime in Yemen, in Egypt, in Tunisia and Libya—what exactly will they accomplish? “Did anyone say we are against polygamy?” Ebadi asked. “That we want divorce rights? That we are human and need equal rights?”

Ebadi is a practicing Muslim, but she practices common sense as well. “[W]hen a government is based on Sharia law, it can be interpreted in different ways,” she said in her Women’s Forum remarks. Dictate your conditions early on, she begged her female listeners. “Don’t wait for victory.”

Too late. Now victory has come, in some instances. Just not to women.


Photo Attribution: Nick Leonard

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