The changes were as radical as they were swift. On July 26, Tunisia voted to criminalize sexual harassment and discrimination against women. On Aug. 1, Jordan’s Parliament voted to scrap a law that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims.
Lebanon and Iraq now look to follow suit later this year and end their marry-your-rapist laws and criminalize violence against women.
As sudden as these victories for women’s rights may seem, they are not an unanticipated wave of change. Rather, they are the result of a quiet women’s revolution taking part in the Arab world that has been decades in the making and has drawn on women’s increased participation in politics and a revolution in cross-border communication, especially in social media.
Now, as other Arab countries look to repeal similar repressive laws, lawmakers and community leaders are setting their sights on building on those gains, including equal pay in the workplace.
In Jordan, activists have been working to repeal Article 308 – the marry-the-rapist clause – for two decades; but the most recent attempt in 2013 only gathered two dozen signatures in Parliament. In Tunisia, for years after the 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab spring, women’s rights activists saw the proposed law stall time and again.
Yet both Jordan and Tunisia have experienced an important development: an increased number of women elected to parliamentary bodies.
Jordan’s 2016 elections saw women grab 20 of Parliament’s 130 seats, the highest proportion of women ever, in an election that fielded a record 252 female candidates. In Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in 2014, women were elected to 31 percent of the parliament’s seats – the highest percentage of any Arab country and more than in France.
Activists and experts say many of these women members of Parliament (MPs) used their positions to lobby their governments, cajole colleagues, and introduce debates over issues that lawmakers previously had been unwilling to address.
“Women and the civil society expect us to take the first steps, to drive these issues forward, and encourage progress in human rights and women’s rights,” says Wafa Bani Mustafa, a Jordanian MP who led the campaigns to scrap article 308 in 2013 and 2017.
“Not all women MPs are on board,” she says, “but those of us that were willing, answered this…