This year, International Women's Day marks a pivotal moment for women across the world. On 8 March last year, thousands of women were risking their lives during the Arab uprisings, pushing themselves to the front line of the protests.
Women have been honoured for their role: Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni activist, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize – and across the region women are now stepping up to rebuild their countries. The Guardian today has a picture gallery showing women in the vanguard of different protest movements all over the world.
But as the fallout from the revolutions continues, and new political arrangements start to take shape, it's more important than ever for women to keep fighting for their rights, and lay claim to their hard-won freedoms.
Now, women can take abusers to court
In the elections that followed the Arab spring, parties affiliated with Islamist movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and An-Nahda in Tunisia) won the most votes. Some western observers worry that these groups will seek to impose repressive forms of sharia law, which discriminate against women.
But the picture is more complicated: both An-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood have put forward women candidates in recent elections, and Tawakkol Karman, the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate so far, is a member of the Islah party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rumours have circulated recently of women teachers at universities in Tunisia being intimidated into wearing the hijab: but last year, many Tunisian women put on the hijab as a way of celebrating the new freedom granted them by the revolution – under President Ben Ali's unpopular regime, the hijab had been forbidden.
After the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the new military government subjected many women detainees to virginity tests: but in July 2011, Samira Ibrahim and Maha Mohamed went to court to stop the practice, and won – the court referring to both the new constitution and Egypt’s obligation under international law to refrain from torture or ill treatment. According to Rabab El Mahdi, who teaches political science at the American University in Cairo, this ruling shows the fruits of the Arab spring: "The harassment of women in the streets was a problem long before the revolution but it is now coming to light — so women are able to take their abusers to court".
But it's not enough
Yet some women are disappointed or fearful that the revolutions have not changed things for them. Legal rights aren't everything: political representation matters. In Libya, a plan to reserve 10% of parliamentary seats for women was scrapped; in Egypt, the proportion of women in parliament has fallen from 12% to 2%.
And as Karen Sherman from Women for Women International stresses, winning the fight for economic equality, at home and in the workplace, is just as important: “It makes a big difference in terms of how a woman is perceived within the family and within the society," she says.
During the Arab spring, many women fought and suffered for freedom. Now, as the region forges a new path forward, citizens and leaders must make sure that their bravery – and their suffering – was not in vain.
Further viewing: Watch this footage of women protesting in Tehran, 1979. In a chillingly prophetic moment, one demonstrator warns that first the clerics will impose the hijab, then they will eradicate other freedoms too. "Women's freedom is not eastern or western," they chant. "It is universal":