A recent national survey in Libya, Yemen and Tunisia found that 91 percent of Libyans, 87 percent Yemenis and 70 percent of Tunisians said they did not know of any women's rights organizations in their country. Really? How can this be the case? Can women ever achieve real positions of influence and transcend thousands of years of cultural patriarchy in the Middle East?
If Arab women are truly going to be agents of change, they must have the support base and access to opportunities for knowledge sharing, skills-building learning and networking. Without these tools, women will never be able to transform traditional mindsets, and promote political and economic stability in their communities. It will take the presence of strong independent women's institutions and civil society organizations rooted in the region to cultivate women leaders.
Since 2011, women in the Middle East and North Africa have been riding a rollercoaster of achievements (and losses) in the fight for equal rights. In Tunisia, a revolution brought about a budding democracy with a new constitution, praised to be one of the most progressive in the region when it comes to women's rights. But this did not happen overnight.
Backpedaling of women's rights by listing women as "complimentary to men" in the initial constitutional draft fueled fear among many women. Fear that previously hard fought gains in the areas of women's rights were slipping away. Fear that revolution only paved way for harsher restrictions on women and democracy was a pipe dream.
While women's rights advocates in Tunisia were able to assemble themselves to ensure that their new constitution listed women as equal to men before the law, the majority of women advocates in Egypt, Libya and Yemen –all transitioning democratic countries –have seen less than tangible gains. On paper, women's rights and gender quotas have been promised (and even passed) as legislation, but the question remains: are they really fairly and properly implemented?
And what about all the other women living in the Middle East? How are they able to lead their communities to create positive change?
Women across the Maghreb, Levant and Gulf continue to struggle daily in achieving positions of impactful leadership. The perception of women's political leadership survey in Libya, Yemen and Tunisia shows the immense obstacles that lay ahead for women to serve as agents of change in the region. Support for the development of more independent women's rights organizations and their capacity to impact society in the Middle East and North Africa must pointedly strengthen. If women are to ever serve as agents of change in the region, adequate resources for these organizations must be prevalent. Otherwise, nothing will change.