The Thin Veil of Change: The EU’s Promotion of Gender Equality in Egypt and Tunisia

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Series Details Volume 2018, Number 2
Publication Date September 2018
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The images of women protesting alongside men in the squares of Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries in 2011 sent a strong message to the West: they were ready to fight for the liberation of women in their societies. However, as events unfolded, these hopes gradually faded. Today, Tunisia represents the only case of a successful democratic transition which has brought about many channels for the promotion of women’s rights and empowerment. On the contrary, Egypt sank back into the nightmare of a ‘deep state’, betraying the values of freedom, equality and justice that the protesters had demanded.

This paper pursues the complex task of assessing the role of women in the Arab Spring and the impact that the revolutions had on women’s empowerment, gender equality and fundamental rights in Tunisia and Egypt, and how the European Union (EU) has responded to these changes. To what extent has the EU been able to uphold and to prioritise the values of gender equality and fundamental women’s rights in its policy-making towards its Southern neighbours?

The paper starts with the assumption that human rights, of which women’s rights represent a fundamental category, are universal and should be recognised as such without falling into the dangerous traps of cultural relativism. The divergence between Islamist feminist movements and secular movements is central to understanding women’s quest for liberation and empowerment, especially in the case of Tunisia. Important results have been achieved in the field of equality, conceived as the elimination of those structural inequalities hindering the participation of women in the economic, political and social tissue. However, many more steps need to be taken to ensure gender equity, that is, the achievement of equal opportunities and equal treatment in the distribution of benefits. While the EU has acknowledged the role of women in the democratisation processes and supported them through funding, projects and dialogue, its approach seems to promote the inclusion of women in the same gendered and asymmetrical structures that are at the origin of their exclusion. Therefore, the Arab Spring was but a thin veil of change that has uncovered the women’s quest for equality in the North African region.

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