A Conversation with
Isobel Coleman

On February 27, 2014, more than 60 members of IWHC’s Leadership Council gathered to hear Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy and Civil Society, Markets and Democracy programs at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Coleman, who most recently addressed the Council in November 2011, was joined by IWHC President Françoise Girard for a lively discussion about how women and women’s rights have fared in the Middle East, three years after the Arab Spring. The event was opened and closed by Marlene Hess, IWHC Board chair.

Read more about this event.


The wide-ranging conversation provided an overview of several countries in the region, from Egypt and Tunisia, to Saudi Arabia and Syria. “The region is in tremendous turmoil,” Coleman said. “In some cases, it will get worse… before it gets even worse; I’m obviously pessimistic on Syria.” But she noted a few bright spots in the region, like Tunisia and Egypt, which both have new constitutions that strengthen women’s rights particularly in the area of personal rights (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.).

Coleman remarked the new Tunisian constitution was created through a “pretty consensual process,” noting that the women’s rights movement in that country is stronger than it has ever been. She pointed out that the moderate Islamist party, the Ennahda, while very influential, only has a plurality of the votes, so its leadership realized they had to work with the secular parties, and to agree to shape a constitution that is not based on Sharia law. “This is truly a watershed,” Coleman said. “They have come up with a relatively strong and fair constitution; a high-water mark for an Arab country to date.”

Despite continued upheaval and a return to military rule, Coleman also thought women were faring better now than in pre-revolution Egypt, noting commitments to achieving gender equality and upholding international conventions, such as CEDAW, in the brand new constitution. The new constitution also establishes a quota for women to fill 25 percent of seats at the municipal level, bringing more women into politics and paving the way for more female participation in higher levels of government.

Regarding the extent of violence against women in public spaces in Egypt, Coleman noted: “One of the most positive things I’ve seen in Egypt has been the response to sexual violence by both men and women… we’ve seen a real mobilization of civil society to take on this issue in a very public way. It’s very shameful for a woman to be sexually violated, and it’s not as if this didn’t go on in the past, but nobody spoke about it. Today, it’s on the front page of every newspaper. We’ve seen cases go through criminal and civil court against the government for performing virginity tests on female protestors… Samira Ibrahim, who has been the torch-bearer of this legal effort, actually lost her case against the government, but nevertheless, the government made a commitment that they would no longer do these virginity tests. So in that way, she lost the battle, but won the war.”

Girard asked about one issue frequently covered by the media when discussing the status of women in Saudi Arabia:, the ban on women driving. The groundbreaking Saudi movie, Wajda , by Saudi filmmaker Haaifa Al Mansour, about a little girl who wants to buy a bicycle, shows her mother constantly haggling with her foreign driver, who drives her to work and everywhere else. Coleman noted the first group of women to protest the driving ban in 1990 was denounced by the government, which accused them of destroying society and being spies working for the CIA. The current movement, which has taken the form of Saudi women filming themselves driving and posting the videos on YouTube, has a much more public, social media aspect that the first movement lacked. “Today, you can go on YouTube and see they’re not spies. And they’re not working for the CIA,” Coleman said. “They’re your neighbors, they’re your sisters, they’re your mothers. They’re just normal Saudi women. It’s normalizing the notion of driving.” She predicted the driving ban will eventually fall on its own.

Coleman addressed multiple questions from the audience about the impact of U.S. interventions in the region. On one hand, Coleman said, American investments—including support from U.S.-based NGOs—have helped promote women’s rights across the region, fostering economic independence and political participation by women. On the other hand, Coleman noted that the “secular dictators” who ruled that region for so long used the promotion of women’s rights to buy off criticism of their other violations of human rights and democratic process. The U.S. government would go along with that, turning a blind eye to grave abuses.

Coleman noted that, as a result, many of the advances for women’s rights made under these dictators are now being scrutinized by pro-democracy groups: “Egypt, under a relatively secular authoritarian model, the military model that we had for many decades under President Mubarak, is a country where women’s rights, in a legal sense, made some progress. And after the overthrow of Mubarak, we saw those legal gains come under pressure and threat from not only Islamists, frankly, but also secular groups who questioned the authenticity and validity of the personal status laws.”

Coleman noted that international organizations like IWHC play a crucial role in supporting civil society groups in these countries to engage in the long-term advocacy needed to transform societies. Since 1998, IWHC has collaborated with women’s organizations based in the Middle East and North Africa, including the regional networks Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) and the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR). In Turkey, an IWHC-supported campaign by Women for Women’s Human Rights resulted in reforms to the civil and penal code, which gave women rights in marriage, divorce, and the right to sexual autonomy and bodily integrity.

Coleman closed the discussion by noting that despite tragedy in the region, there’s reason for optimism, citing two recent, encouraging developments: in Morocco, the law that allowed rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims was overturned, and in Yemen, the minimum age of marriage will be set at 18 (the UN has estimated that 52 percent of girls in Yemen are married before they turn 18).

Without minimizing the difficulties experienced by women in the region and the continued violence and upheaval many will experience in countries such as Syria and Iraq, Coleman concluded: “When I look across the region, I see glimmers of hope.”

The IWHC Leadership Council is a special group of women and men who share a broad interest in the U.S. foreign policy agenda and are committed to women’s health and human rights globally. Learn more about the Leadership Council.