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Associated Press
A woman covers her face with Egyptian flag as she attends a protest in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. Islamists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt's first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
I used to be ashamed of who I am, a woman. But not anymore. —Manal al-Sharif

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."

Universal plight

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."

According to the 2011 Gender Gap Report, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt rank in the bottom 13 out of 135 countries for women's economic opportunities and the bottom seven out of 132 countries for political empowerment.

But although the majority of Arab countries are predominately Muslim, the question of inequality regarding women is not necessarily a religious one, says Merve Kavacki-Islam, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and former member of the Turkish Parliament.

"To be a woman at this time in any part of the world, be it in the United States of America, be it in Jordan, be it in China — it is not an easy job," Kavacki-Islam says. "By virtue of being a woman, you can be discriminated against … and Muslim women have their own particularities."

The Middle East lacks homogeneity, Kavacki-Islam says, which means discrimination against women occurs in different forms, with different justifications. Each country has different cultures and interpretations of the Quran, which inform their rules of law and permeate all aspects of everyday life. The crossover between culture and religion can sometimes be misleading, she says.

"There is an Islamic way for me to get up from bed and to go to bed, an Islamic way to take a drink of water," Kavacki-Islam says. "You don't know which part comes from Islam and which part comes from local culture. Local cultures might be opposing Islamic tradition."

Rising stars

The video of Manal al-Sharif is dark and shaky, but the picture is clear: She is driving down the street, wearing dark sunglasses and a traditional Islamic headscarf, and she is making left- and right-hand turns and stopping at stop lights.

And it is forbidden.

In Saudi Arabia, where al-Sharif lives, women can be lashed or jailed for driving their own cars, but the 32-year-old mother of two wants that to change. A year ago, after being inspired by the Arab Spring, she started posting online videos of herself driving and encouraging other women to drive as well.

"We were voiceless. We were faceless. And we were nameless. We were just invisible," al-Sharif told an audience at the Oslo Freedom Forum earlier this May. "I used to be ashamed of who I am, a woman. But not anymore."

Al-Sharif is one example of a new generation of women who are pressing for change in Arab countries. The events of the Arab Spring have created room for activists to voice their concerns and encourage others to do the same while the world is watching, Naciri says.

"In some cases it will support a bit of a polarization, but this will entice other women also to stand up and take positions and take initiatives and be seen on the leadership plateau," he says. "It is definitely very, very empowering to women groups in general."

In Egypt, Esraa Abdel-Fataah costarted the initial groundwork for the protest in Tahrir Square through social media. She was arrested and released in 2008 for organizing what is known as the April 6 Facebook Protests among thousands of young people demanding political change.

In Yemen, Tawakel Karman formed a group called "Women Journalists Without Chains" in 2005 to campaign for the right to freedom of expression. In 2011, she played a key role in the Yemeni uprising and became known as the "Mother of the revolution" for organizing youth protests. Later that year, at age 32, she became the first Arab woman, and the second Muslim woman, to win a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

In Saudi Arabia, al-Sharif was briefly arrested for her activism and then released. She was awarded the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent earlier in May, and she has now started a movement called the Saudi Woman's Spring.

The changes al-Sharif seeks mean more to her than getting behind a steering wheel. Like Naciri, she sees a long road of change ahead, and she hopes that in the end it will all be worth it.

"The struggle just began," al-Sharif said in Norway while receiving her award. "I don't know how long it will last, and I don't know when it will end. But for me, the struggle is not about driving a car. It is about being in the driver's seat of our destiny. It is to be free, not only to dream, but also to live."