By Rowan Popplewell.

I recently returned from a whirlwind trip across North Africa, facilitating workshops on Action Research with local civil society organisations promoting women’s participation in political processes in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. It is a time of both great uncertainty and opportunity for women throughout the region. Reforms have created avenues for progress on women’s social and political rights in some North African countries, in others they have opened the way for a rise in hardline conservatism that is threatening to undermine existing rights and freedoms.

Women played a critical role in the widespread public protests and revolutions that swept across North Africa in 2011 that collectively became known as the ‘Arab Spring’. They took to the streets alongside men to demand social and political change. Yet their involvement extended beyond direct participation to include leading and organising demonstrations and the development of cyber-activism as a tool for stimulating citizen action. In some countries this has opened up new spaces for women’s participation in public life; in others women fear that the new post-revolution regimes will revoke their hard-won rights.

In Tunisia, (where the first feminist magazine was published in 1940 and progressive reforms promoting women’s rights were introduced in the mid-1950s) activists I was working with fear that long established social and political rights will be revoked by the new moderate Islamist government.

In Egypt, workshop participants described how women’s rights have already been weakened. Despite the crucial role played by women in the demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Government that replaced him systematically undermined the position of women through removing articles on women’s social and political rights from the constitution and weakening legislation promoting women’s participation in public life. The latest turbulence in Egypt only enhances the uncertainty faced by women.

In contrast, heavily marginalised under Gaddafi, the women I spoke to in Libya feel like they are making real progress and elections held in July 2012 marked a significant increase in women’s participation. However, voter turnout among women was low and there are concerns that the constitution currently being drafted will not explicitly promote women’s rights and gender equality – something that could significantly undermine recent progress.

In Morocco, the challenges stressed by the people I met differed somewhat. Here the concern was with getting women to exercise their rights, both by improving their self-confidence and also through building up their economic position to enable empowerment and greater independence.

As I travelled across the region, I noticed important differences between the four countries which will shape the prospects for increased women’s participation. Differences in the ever-changing political and security situations; in the rule of law, institutions and legislative framework; in societal attitudes towards women and the history of support for women’s rights; in the shape and composition of civil society and the history of external aid to civil society; in the impact of the former regime on opportunities for political participation; and in the strength of more conservative Islamic political parties versus their more liberal counterparts – all these have implications for those seeking to promote women’s participation in political processes in each of these countries.

Yet, similarities also come through in the topics that the groups want to work on: how to build self-confidence within women to participate and exercise their rights; how to challenge negative attitudes towards women’s participation among both men and women; how to influence and use legislation to enable women to engage fully in political arenas; and how to tackle under-representation of women and lack of engagement.

This is where we hope that Action Research – a highly participatory approach to research where researchers and participants work together to generate knowledge and understanding that supports action, reflection and learning – will come into its own. Action Research may often be criticised for lacking generalizability and producing knowledge that is too locally specific, but in this case the generation of context-specific knowledge to achieve clear objectives aimed at changing the status quo will be a strength. These Action Research projects will give space to the important differences between the four countries, ensuring that locally-relevant action can emerge from locally-generated evidence. This is especially crucial in the still volatile political context in the region. At the same time, the broader programme should also provide opportunities for sharing, learning and theory-building across the region on areas of common concern, thus supporting other civil society and women’s rights activists facing similar challenges elsewhere.

Note: This blog draws on work INTRAC is current undertaking with the British Council to support their Women Participating in Public Life Programme, which is funded by the FCO-DFID Arab Partnership initiative. The programme aims to build the capacity of women and generate broad based support for their involvement in public life in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. As part of this programme, INTRAC is supporting organisations in these countries to implement an Action Research project to promote the participation of women in political processes at a local and national level.