On Thursday, Prof. Shulamit Reinharz Ph.D. ’72 (SOC), founder of the Women’s Studies Research Center, introduced the most recent lecturer. She explained, “95 percent of the lectures given here from 2001 to now have been by the 85 scholars who work here. We opened up our lectures to a diversity of topics and a diversity of speakers. Our speaker today exemplifies those qualities.”

Valentine M. Moghadam, professor of sociology and international affairs at Northeastern University, presented her research on the connection between women’s rights and the progression of democracy in North African countries. 

Moghadam presented a lecture titled “Democratization and Women’s Political Leadership in North Africa,” which she began by discussing the recent attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. “In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, I think less understood and less explained [conflicts] is what I’m trying to talk about today,” she said. According to Moghadam, the Charlie Hedbo attacks were examples of the anti-democratization of society, which in turn, is often telling of the society’s treatment of women.

Moghadam went on to provide a brief introduction to her research, explaining that the strength of feminist movements in the Middle East is often telling of the success of a modernist, progressive approach toward women and toward the population in general. Moghadam cited the specific example of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring refers to the beginning of spring 2011, in which the people of several nations, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen overthrew dictators. 

She explained that her research focused on the North African countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, in which the Arab Spring generated relatively positive outcomes toward the process of democratization. Moghadam explained that the other countries that experienced revolutions in spring 2011, which include Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen, have had very “sad outcomes, with several cases of civil conflicts or repression of pro-democracy movements.” 

Moghadam presented explanations for the divergent outcomes and discussed what she described as the four explanatory variables in each instance: gender relations, the role of gender in analysis, the role of international factors and women’s participation in political leadership. 

Moghadam added that these variables not only help determine the successfulness of democratization, but also are outcomes themselves. 

 Successful transitions to democracy are often indicative that a more women-friendly agenda has prevailed in the process. 

The other major factor, according to Moghadam, is the extent to which women participate in both civil and political leadership roles. 

Moghadam cited several examples of women who have been major political figures in the Northern African states, such as Louisa Hanoune of Algeria, and displayed several pictures of major pro-feminist demonstrations, such as those that have taken place in Tunisia.

Moghadam spoke about Lina Ben Mhenni, a prominent and very outspoken female Tunisian blogger who took part in a major anti-censorship campaign. 

Moghadam  explained that based on empirical evidence that she gathered, Tunisia is the North African state in which women have the most freedom. 

For example, an excellent indicator of women’s freedom in Islamic countries is the number of women in the judiciary, according to Moghadam, as strict interpretations of Islam would prevent women from serving as judges. 

Moghadam outlined the external and internal factors and forces in the democratization process. 

She said that the nature of the transition of a country’s regime—as exemplified in the difference between  the transitions in Syria and Tunisia—as well as international connection to outside organizations such as the U.N., are both major deciding factors in whether or not a country is democratized. 

She separated the factors into negative and positive, saying that military interventions can exacerbate anti-women sentiments, while relations with internal organizations and the global diffusion of the women’s rights agenda—which refers to the world wide spread of the pro women’s rights campaign—have positive effects. 

She added that socioeconomic development and cultural change are other key factors. 

“There have been several advances in women’s rights in the North African countries since the Arab Spring,” said Moghadam, 

“However, sometimes politics and ideology get in the way of understanding.”