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Democracy first, and then civil rights for women?

The year is 2010 when the Arab Spring begins in North Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. The protesters’ calls for democracy spread from country to country during 2011 and there was a strong belief in a democratic future. Now, seven years later, we can look back and conclude that the only country which has managed to keep its democratic gains is Tunis. Why is that? What was so different about Tunis?

During upraises such as the Arab Spring men often acquire civil rights faster than women. But if women don’t at the same time receive any civil rights at all, the democratic gains will not persist. By looking at data from 173 countries between 1900 and 2012 it’s possible to see that civil rights for both genders are necessary for a country to become and remain a democracy. It doesn’t matter if the male part of the population enjoys rich civil rights; as long as the women don’t enjoy civil rights the probability of that country becoming a democracy is low.

Two explanations for this is partly that women with civil rights use these to oppose the regime and thereby increase the “cost” of oppression, partly that women with the right to organize has historically used this to spark bigger protests. This means that it’s crucial for those that pursue democratization to focus on civil rights for women and women’s right to organize.

So what was the status of women’s’ civil rights during the Arab Spring? Among the countries where the protests took place Tunis was the one country where women had the most civil rights and today we can see that Tunisia is also the country that has managed to uphold its democratic gains from the Arab Spring. In other words: first civil right for women, then democracy.

Find out more in the article Women's rights in democratic transitions: A global sequence analysis, 1900–2012 by among others Patrik Lindenfors.

Read more about Patrik's project Sequences of Democratization.