The sun was already scorching the pavement last Wednesday in Cairo, Egypt, as a long line of people stood squinting in the brightness outside an old concrete building.
It was a vision never before seen in Egypt: hundreds of women waiting to cast a vote in the country's first free presidential election. Women have had the right to vote in Egypt since the 1950s — although they are still segregated from men in the voting process — but this occasion was different.
"We are writing history today," a woman told a reporter as she cast her ballot, summarizing the hopes and fears reverberating across Egypt as it took its first step toward democracy.
Women in Egypt — and across the Middle East — played a key role in the uprisings of the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in January 2011 with the ousting of its ruler of almost 24 years. Now, as countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco are poised to rebuild their political systems in the aftermath of those uprisings, women in those and neighboring nations are equally as involved in shaping their country's future. The political agendas and religious beliefs among the groups of women advocating change are varied, but the message they share is the same: Now is the time to be heard.
"Many countries in the Arab states have never gone through a true democratic process," Mohammad Naciri, deputy director of the Arab States Regional Centre for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, said from his office in Cairo after the first round of voting ended. "This is the first time in centuries where women are reaching the chance to participate in a true, transparent and genuine democratic process, which I find very exciting."
When tens of thousands of people stormed Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011, it was in the name of earning improved rights for everyone — including women.
Women helped organize the initial protests through social media and marched in the uprising with men as equal partners. Images of these predominately Muslim Arab women were captured and broadcast around the world, showing they were not the helpless and diffident people they are often mistaken to be, but vital and valuable instruments in the cause for change.
That is just the beginning of the road, Naciri says. There's still a long way to go.
"We need to look on how can we sustain this participation," Naciri says. "With women, with men, with the country at large, and the government, how can we prove that women's participation is of interest and benefit to the whole society."
Studies show that overlooking women's social, economic and political rights can have a negative impact on society as a whole. Giving women less access to resources limits agricultural productivity, food security and is increasingly linked to poverty, migration and violence, says a 2009 United Nations World Survey.
Laws on domestic violence help decrease violence because fewer people think it is acceptable, according to UN Women. Egypt, Morocco and Jordan have laws that prohibit domestic violence, according to UN Women, but no countries in the region explicitly outlaw marital rape.
Economically, the greater the gender gap between men and women regarding educational attainment, economic participation, health and survival, and political empowerment, the worse the country fares.
"The correlation among competitiveness, income and development and gender gaps is evident," the World Economic Forum's 2011 Gender Gap Report says. "While correlation does not prove causality, it is consistent with the theory and mounting evidence that empowering women means a more efficient use of a nation's human talent endowment and that reducing gender inequality enhances productivity and economic growth."