The massive, exhilarating protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen mark a sea change for the better in the Arab world. But the implications of the uprisings for women in these countries have not yet been fully analyzed. All of the countries currently experiencing upheaval have made significant progress for women -- progress that could be swept away very easily, as it was in Iran in 1979, never to be regained.
Tunisia promulgated one of the most-enlightened personal-status codes for women in the Arab world in 1956, under Habib Bourguiba. Polygyny, the taking of multiple wives, was outlawed; men could no longer unilaterally and extra-judicially divorce their wives through simply declaring the divorce -- or "talaq" -- three times; and women were granted rights to divorce and to child custody. Tunisian women are not compelled to don the veil, and the legal minimum age for marriage for girls is 17. There is virtually no segregation of women in public, and women are able to move freely outside their homes. Though not a big country, Tunisia has had an outsized influence on Islamic debate concerning women's rights.
By contrast, the hard fought battle for women's rights in Egypt has been marked by ebbs and flows. Female circumcision, practiced there as infibulation, was banned in 1997, then re-legalized, before being banned once again in 2008, largely due to the personal efforts of First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.