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The growing strength of Islamist political parties in the Mideast's new democracies makes one wonder what will happen to Arab women's rights.

I'm not talking of women in Saudi Arabia, where they are still fighting for the right to drive and are relegated to segregated workplaces, but of countries where working women have long been the norm.

Thousands of women took part in Egypt's Tahrir Square demonstrations, and young Tunisian women played a major role in their revolution. In Egypt, middle-class women have long held professional jobs.

On this trip, I've met impressive Egyptian women business executives in banking, food production and marketing. I met Tunisian women who were diplomats, engineers, professors and pharmacists. (Forty percent of Tunisia's doctors are women, along with 30 percent of its dentists and judges.)

Yet now that the Islamist party Ennahda has won a plurality in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice Party (a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot) is set to do likewise in Egypt, many active women in both countries are nervous.

Leaders of both these Islamist parties insist they won't reverse women's progress. Whether they keep their promises will be the litmus test of whether they are as moderate as they claim.

The pledge to respect women's rights appears much more credible in Tunisia. Ennahda party leaders insist they support the family status law that bans polygamy and gives women the right to divorce, get child custody, hold property, work and travel.

Many secular Tunisians told me they feared that, in a bad economy, women might be pressured to give up government jobs to men. (This happened in Iraq.) They also feared that Islamists' focus on the family may produce social pressure for women to stay home -- and to veil.

Hard-line salafi groups and imams have emerged in Tunisia since the revolution; their numbers are still small, but they openly demand curbs on women's rights. And the Ennahda rank and file may be more conservative than its leaders.

Yet Ennahda has the possibility of becoming the model of moderate Islam, and demonstrating that women's rights are compatible with that religion. That positive role model becomes all the more important since Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party looks unlikely to provide it. The party has two women among its 12 party leaders, but the Muslim Brotherhood, from which it springs, has none in its innermost circle. The party does have an active women's movement, and it will field female candidates. But, I'm told that most if not all are the wives of Brotherhood activists.

There has been progress: In 2007, Brotherhood leaders famously said that no woman should be president; now they say their party would not nominate a woman.

The influence of salafis here, with their satellite TV stations and donations from the Arab Gulf, has fed a sweeping conservative mood that does not bode well for women's rights. The only national organizational platform for women -- the National Council on Women -- has been shut down because it was linked to Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the deposed president.

Women in Egypt need help in organizing to defend their rights, as well as to start businesses. Tunisian women need that help, too. Western governments and nongovernmental organizations should target aid and loans to empower women, and offer them training for jobs, starting small businesses, and running for office.

In this uncertain time of transition, Western countries should be helping Arab women help themselves.