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Women of the Middle East

What comes after the revolution?

At a recent London debate on the Tunisian revolution, a panelist said that, unlike in other countries of the Arab Spring, Tunisian women were very at the forefront of the movement. So the other Middle Eastern uprisings were fought by men, I questioningly thought, looking at the all male panel.

Thankfully, the female panel at this Friday's Frontline Club debate in London, rectified some of these assumptions.

'We need to break stereotypes that exist in the Western world', says the Bahraini human rights activist Mayram Al Khawaja from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Her sister, Zeinab Al Khawaja (also known by her Twitter name @angryarabiya) was detained on 15 December during a sitting protest in Manama's Pearl Square - Bahrain's Tahrir.

In Bahrain, says Al Khawaja, half of the protesters are women - they read poetry, gave speeches and shared their idea's of the country's future. Other movements have been lead by women, such as the Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts a week ago. Of course there are differences between and within regions, but as Al Khawaja agues out, Islam and women's rights are not mutually exclusive and although Bahrain is a very religious country, women have professionally proven themselves in different sector of society.

Bahrain, where protests have again flared up over the last few days, is currently under the constitutional monarchy of King Hamad Al-Khalifa who visited the UK last week. The protesters (Al Jazeera has a very good documentary on the uprisings) are demanding a secular civil government.

'People have come to the realisation that you need to separate religion from government because you will never find an entire population that agrees on what Islam means, or what Sharia means,' explains Al Khawaja.

One of the major challenges for women in the Middle East, says Al Khawaja, is what they will do once the revolution is successful. With the strong and increasing anti-western sentiments in the Arab world - and after Western wars and dealings in region, who can blame them - she says that change must come from within. The women are treading a fine line - they have to be careful that women's rights are not rejected as Western ideology. If the development is slow, so be it, she argues, as long as it comes from within - otherwise the system will not work.

Women found a voice in the revolution, says Mervat Mhani of the Libyan Free Generation Movement and a housewife and mother before the revolution. They cannot go back after to the lives they lived before. Of course they don't have political experience, she says, but after 42 years of Gaddafi dictatorship, neither do the men. The recently elected Libyan transitional government only however only has one female minister, Mabrouk Sherif, who is responsible for Social Affairs. 'It's early days', says Mhani.

Sussan Tahmasebi, a US-Iranian women's and civil rights activist who was also present at the debate, was however more adamant her view of the golden opportunity that the countries have, in drafting their new constitutions:

'Let the people who want lesser value choose that for themselves, but let's not put it in the law,' she argues. 'Draft laws that you can defend in 30 years. Draft it in such a way that the system that you devise, doesn't crush you'.

Arab and North African regions, may have to go through a period where conservative governments are in power and women's social status will in many cases be compromised, the panelists agreed, but it is down to their legal rights, whether women will gain a better position in years to come, or not.