With elections in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and, later this year hopefully, open elections in Egypt, democratic processes are on the rise across the Middle East. The drumbeat of political reform is being echoed by Muslim women who are beginning to play a critical role in these processes. Politicians, scholars and non-governmental organisations agree that social reform and democratisation will improve the status of women in the Middle East. But they miss the vital point that women themselves are driving forward democracy in the Arab world.

We are at the beginning of a shift in attitudes and behaviour as women fight for their individual rights in societies in which collective rights are traditionally more important.

They are demanding change in many areas. Personal issues such as divorce, the custody of children and economic rights are on the agenda, as are campaigns against "honour killings" and female genital mutilation. These advancements underpin the Middle East's hidden democratic revolution.

Political reform is critical for two reasons. Firstly, as the United Nations development programme will outline in a report this week, universal democracy is essential for economic and social development. If nations continue to exclude women from the economic mainstream they will forgo the economic growth that women can generate. Secondly, women have much to offer to the political debate. Political discourse is weaker in societies where women are silent citizens.

The evidence of women winning basic political rights in almost every Arab nation is not hard to find. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia women are fighting for the right to vote. In Saudi Arabia some women have declared themselves ready to stand as political candidates in municipal elections. Women in the Palestinian territories have started their own democratic journey too. Half of the 66 per cent of the registered electorate who voted in the presidential elections in Gaza and the West Bank were women.

In Yemen and Egypt there are demands to include women in the political process through a form of affirmative action or quotas. Quotas can only be stopgap measures - women need fair representation based on merit, not mathematics - but the recognition of a need for change is an important step forward.

In Morocco women have attained basic rights in family law, while in Egypt, the former wife of a high- profile actor recently won the right to use a DNA test to prove her ex-husband was the father of her son, something that as a frequent visitor to Cairo I find a very encouraging sign. It has just been announced that women in Saudi Arabia will be able to apply for driving licences - something that, under previous discriminatory policies, women were unable to do.

Legal reform is an important and necessary step in bringing about lasting change. But some of the issues that women face cannot be solved purely through the legislative process. In practice, legal and social impunity for "honour killing" continues in Syria and in Jordan. Political representation of women will not immediately end this practice, but it will become irrefutable that women have equal rights to men. That change in perception, I hope, will undo a practice that cannot be tolerated in any country in the world. The same is true for female genital mutilation, but there are some encouraging signs from the No Peace Without Justice campaign, launched in Cairo and continued in Nairobi and Djibouti, that attitudes to this practice are changing.

Momentum is the key to progressive change. All nations must offer support to those seeking reform. A recent initiative by the US state department to help create a women's network in the Middle East so that women can learn from each other is a positive move.

The European Union's intention to enlarge the Barcelona process, building a strategic partnership right across the region, will benefit this development, as would greater involvement and more focused initiatives from European non-governmental actors in general. Arabic women need to have support from outside the region for their courage and increasing determination to discuss important issues in public.

Later this week female leaders in business and politics from Arab nations will meet in Brussels under the auspices of the Arab International Women's Forum to discuss economic rights.

This kind of forum is critical to realising democratic advances and sharing knowledge and objectives for the future. We all have a responsibility to help the advancement of women across the world.

I remember how beneficial it was for those of us fighting for basic rights and equality in Italy to receive support from women in other countries in Europe who were further ahead in the same fight.

Where women are being denied their rights, be they voting, education or personal equality, the international community cannot merely offer encouraging but empty words. Instead it must provide support, resources and ways of integrating and linking these different campaigns. There must be an international forum for ideas that gives a voice to the language of freedom and fundamental rights. Through fundamental rights and freedom come stability. Peacefully but steadily, women are spreading democracy in the Middle East.

The writer is a former EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs (1995-1999), is a member of the Radical party and a member of the European parliament (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe)

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