Midyear Meeting

Bolstering rights of women is key to rule of law in Arab Spring countries, former senator says

The overthrow of several regimes in the Middle East over the past two years hasn’t produced much progress toward achieving equality for women, former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison told lawyers gathering for the ABA’s 2013 Midyear Meeting in Dallas.

And if women and girls in the region do not gain basic rights, said Hutchison, it’s unlikely that rule of law will take hold in the Middle East and North Africa, where Islam is the predominant religion and a potent political and social force.

Despite initial thoughts that the Arab Spring uprisings would bring democracy and a strong commitment to the rule of law to some countries in the MENA region, “Vocal groups that oppose equality are gaining influence,” said Hutchison, who returned to private life in January after representing Texas in the U.S. Senate for 20 years. “Voices of moderation are vital to assuring that equality will be there.”

Hutchison, who spoke at a luncheon Thursday, recently became of counsel to the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm in Dallas. She was the keynote speaker at a daylong program titled “The Arab Spring: Doing Business and the Rule of Law.” The program was co-sponsored by the ABA Section of International Law and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University, which hosted the event.

Focusing on Egypt and Tunisia as examples of trends in the Middle East following the Arab Spring uprisings that began in late 2010, she noted that the current regime in Egypt has retained many of the policies and constitutional measures limiting civil rights that were prominent during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak.

“It is an incredible injustice in Egypt that women have been essentially cut out of the political process after playing such a vital role in the overthrow of Mubarak,” Hutchison said. Women have made more progress in Tunisia since its Arab Spring transition, she said, “but warning signs are still warranted.”

One of the keys to creating a more responsive government and legal structure that recognizes the rule of law is protection of human rights, “and that must include women and girls, including the education of girls,” Hutchison said. Many Islamic countries restrict girls from getting the same access to school as boys. “There is no such thing as a First World country that doesn’t have gender equality,” she said.

Hutchison said gender equality plays an important role in determining a country’s overall economic health. She cited a variety of studies indicating that growth in income by women has a strong positive impact on a country’s economy.

Hutchison singled out Turkey as an example of how a Muslim nation can build an effective democratic structure. But in other cases, she said, “We have to be much more careful about our financial aid” and suggested that the U.S. government should tie its financial support to efforts by recipient countries to reduce oppression of women.

The Midyear Meeting continues on Friday, and will run through Monday.

Also see:

USA Today: “Arab Spring reforms still leaving women out in the cold”

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