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The Arab Spring: What did it do for women?

January 24, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Earlier this year year London played host to the highest ranking female politician in the Arab world, her position made possible by the advent of the Arab Spring – and specifically the Jasmine Revolution which catalysed it in her home country of Tunisia. Mehrezia Labidi came to hold the position as the Deputy Speaker of the Tunisian National Assembly following the election of Al-Nahda in the first democratic elections in Tunisia after the Jasmine Revolution in October 2011. A few months earlier the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Tawakul Karman1 had also been in London following her role in popular protests in Yemen, which catapulted her into the international spotlight. The common thread running through their experiences has been the events of the Arab Spring during the last 18 months.

The development of the Arab Spring across the Middle East was not a gender based issue, yet it was the issue of women’s rights which sought to define it in the perception of the ‘West’. The increase in articles from a wide spectre of British, European and American journalists on the role of women sought to use women’s rights and gender issues as a mark of success of the Arab Spring2. The Western audience watched (and continue to do so) with baited breath at the Arab Spring unfolded across the Middle East, with hopes for new democracies and liberal revivals as old dictatorial regimes were overthrown and rebelled against. As has become a common part of Western discourse, the measurement of democratic success is weighed in the treatment of women, their advancement in politics, media and social spaces and the ways in which women’s issues are defined and responded to.

Yet whilst the Arab Spring was not a gender based revolution it did mark a turning point for the role of women in public space and the advent of women as part of these protests was a significant marker in the changing dynamics that were beginning to take force. While the revolutions were not defined by the role of women there was a general call by both men and women for regime change and revolution – but significantly the gender identities of the revolutionaries was not the focus of the revolutions. However, the overthrowing of the old traditional regimes meant that there were calls for old practises to be ended and with that came the call for the end of traditional patriarchy, the norm for many of these Arab societies. Women in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (and elsewhere across the region) found that they had access to newer and wider audiences who were interested in and allowed for their voices to be heard directly from them. Tawakul Karman became a figure of the Yemeni uprisings; her role as a revolutionary catapulted her into the media spotlight, her role as a strong woman cemented that position. Despite the fact that the revolutions were not gender based calls for freedom, the spotlight on women’s roles across the Middle East and North Africa was intensified.

For all the discussion about women during the Arab Spring, most academics, politicians, commentators and most importantly participants note that the Arab Spring has been a turning point for women in the Middle East. By challenging the patriarchal norms of society, the growth of these visible women has brought about a paradigm shift in the discussion on women in the Middle East. No longer are they just talked about; they are the ones doing the talking. Yet their roles during the revolution, and now in the development of new, post-revolution societies, demands some attention and it is not without facing numerous challenges that these women foray into the public space.

During the revolution

When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 he became the catalyst for a wave of protests and ultimately revolutions against old, dictatorial regimes which had held their Middle Eastern fi efdoms in a stranglehold for decades. Ultimately, these social protest movements were calling for social justice for the impoverished citizens; rising unemployment, depleting living standards, lack of political freedom and free speech were all motivations for the protestors across the Middle East. Whilst each country had their own specific challenges and difficulties, these common themes emerged as calls from the protestors to find a solution began to echo across the region. The demand for human rights came from both men and women and women played an active role in the protests and revolutions.

During these protests women were able to express for themselves their demands for an end to the political dictatorships, to call for the financial burdens on the countries’ citizens to be lifted, to demand an end to the rising unemployment that had begun to engulf their countries. In a number of countries, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen as well as in Bahrain, Libya and now in Syria, women took to the streets to become part of the social protest movement. In the infamous days of protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which saw tens of thousands of Egyptians demand the removal of the then President Mubarak, thousands of women joined these protests. Anecdotes from Western travellers and tourists to pre-revolution Egypt often remarked on the invisibility of women in Egyptian society, particularly in the political sphere – the Tahrir Square protests challenged this notion head on (though there were undeniable challenges and the situation was fraught with diffi culties, which be discussed later).

Tunisia provided another example of women’s active participation. As the protests gathered pace across Tunis, women took to the streets demanding political freedom as well as responding to rising unemployment, corruption and unsustainable food prices. Additionally there were calls for women’s rights to be honoured, for the personal status code3 to be upheld and enforced and for women to be allowed greater political involvement in their country. During Ben Ali’s reign of the country, his grip on the finances had begun to plunge the Tunisian economy into ruin and with this came rising unemployment and consequently a number of other social grievances. It was this fiscal burden that sparked Bouazizi’s fire when he committed the most defining act of the Arab Spring. Interestingly, it was reported that he was finally pushed over the edge when he was assaulted by a female police officer whilst he was working as a fruit seller. Whilst the police brutality seemed to be par for the course in Tunisian society, his family reported that his humiliation had been made worse by the fact that the police officer had been female.4

As a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women in pre-revolution Tunisia, this is indeed telling – highlighting the presumptions around women’s roles and place in society. What this does not reflect or highlight was one of the main reasons why women were so keen to be active in the public space – their roles as heads of families and households whilst their fathers and husbands were imprisoned by Ben Ali’s torturous regime. In this way, women were forced to take responsibility and be the voice of their family when calling for their male relatives to be brought home; demanding an end to Ben Ali’s regime was a logical conclusion to that end. An anecdote, by a Tunisian revolutionary cum-politician, revealed how women were compelled to respond to the brutalisation of their society by taking forceful action and making their demands known.

In Yemen, Tawakkul Karman’s story was most telling. Again, in a traditional society, Karman challenged Yemeni norms by becoming the voice of the revolution and spearheading protests against the regime. As an initial organiser of student rallies, she was notoriously stopped and detained in prison by unidentified policeman for 36 hours. Responding to her detention protests sprung up and upon her release she called for a ‘Day of Rage’ hoping to emulate the protests of Tunisia and Egypt. Encouraging women’s groups to participate in these protests she inspired hundreds of women to join in. Conservative estimates suggest that of the protestors, 30% were women5. This was a remarkable achievement in Yemen and signalled the potential that women could have in the renewal of their countries futures. Though Karman was encouraged by her conviction to better her country, it is without doubt that her womanhood garnered her extra motivation and, in turn, greater publicity and media coverage.

Another triumph for women during the Arab Spring was their constant presence throughout the social media sphere. Whilst some commentators dubbed it the ‘Social Media Revolution’ and debate has continued about the eff ect of social media on the Arab Spring, what was undeniable was the plethora of women who could be heard tweeting, writing and debating about these issues. One such blogger was the Egyptian 26 year old Asma Mahfouz, who put out a call on Facebook for people to turn out on the streets and in Tahrir Square. People appeared to heed her call (and of course the call of many others) when they did just that on January 18th. Whilst it will not be decisively concluded as to whether or not the Arab Spring was indeed a social media revolution, what is without doubt is the greater ease the internet and social media gave protesters, allowing them to discuss, organise and develop their protests in a virtual (and most importantly), distinct space away from the regime. In cases where anonymity was needed, the internet allowed protestors to discuss their concerns without fear of brutal repercussions. And of course, this was particularly the case for women.

Whilst women were finding their feet in the physical public space, they were able to assert their voices in the virtual public space with as much dominance and authority as their male counterparts – where previously they may have been restricted by barriers from travelling or family concerns over reputation or no access to the places where discussion was taking place – these restrictions were no longer physical barriers to their participation.

Though the revolution brought women and their concerns and frustrations into the eye line of the wider society, indeed the eye line of the global community – it was not without continued challenges and, perhaps inevitably, the stories of women suff ering at the hands of the revolution became a common theme in the media.

Challenges during the revolution

Their description as challenges perhaps does much injustice to the women who faced immense difficulties during the revolution. The female revolutionaries, journalists, protestors, commentators and citizens did indeed have the spotlight shone upon them as the Arab Spring began to sweep the Middle East. Yet with this spotlight came intense scrutiny from the brutal elements of their society and resultantly reports of rape, sexual assault, physical attacks as well as verbal assaults and other such anguishes became an all too common occurrence. Th e female actors in the protests were perhaps regarded as easy targets, though it should be noted that the brutality was not limited to women. These reports were not limited to police and regime attacks; there were also cases of women being attacked by protestors and other people present during the marches and protests in the various squares and streets of cities across the region.

The Egyptian experience perhaps brought a magnifying glass upon these attacks; during the Tahrir Square protests from January 18, there were numerous reports of police sexual attacks on female protestors – most infamously, the virginity tests. Egyptian military doctors subjected some female demonstrators (Amnesty International put the initial figure at 17) to invasive ‘virginity tests’, following the police having arrested them for demonstrating. A young Egyptian woman, Samira Ibrahim fought to take her case to court, along with other female protestors. Whilst an order was put out demanding an end to the practice, the military court cleared the doctor who had performed the ‘test’. Th ese tactics were used to frighten off the growing presence of women during the Egyptian protests.6 Though losing the lawsuit, Ibrahim’s case did garner the media’s attention and interest. Alongside these reports came stories of sexual assault of female journalists. CBS reporter Lara Logan captured the attention of most Western media outlets when she reported her story of having been sexually assaulted by men whilst she was reporting at the demonstrations. Following this, further stories where reported of a young British journalist, Natasha Smith, and American-Egyptian commentator, Mona el-Tahawy, having been subjected to similar attacks. These were some of the better reported stories, but of course there were many more that began to circulate during the Arab Spring.

Egypt was not the only case. Women in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria all reported similar instances having occurred during protests and demonstrations. These very physical challenges posed extra burdens upon the female protestors – not only were they facing the challenge of removing the dictatorial regimes, like their male counterparts – but traditional, patriarchal attitudes towards women, along with physical threats to their safety certainly made their situation far more challenging. As one commentator noted, “Women in Egypt face three times the pressures that men do: first, from the military regime as protesters; second from the society, just for being women, and third, from all sides for trying to claim their rights to participate in public life.”7 These were sentiments that echoed across the Middle East.

These are examples of some of the more immediate challenges that women participants of the Arab Spring faced. Yet despite that, the female actors in the revolutions continued to keep up their demands for reform and revolution and hoped to play a significant role in the political change that came after the revolts.

Part of Politics

As the revolutions brought about serious political change in respective countries across the Middle East, women began to find out what role they would now play in these new regimes they had fought so hard for. Having been part of the struggle to remove the old dictators, female protestors and demonstrators across the Middle East made demands of the new political players that were emerging: calling on them to include women in the new regime, to respect and protect women’s rights and overall to turn away from the patriarchal system of rule that had engulfed the Middle East for decades.

Following the fall of the old regimes, new political players and revolutionaries emerged to lead the transition to new systems of rule. Egypt and Tunisia saw their fi rst free and fair elections in decades and saw the rise of previously banned and/or exiled figures returning to frontline politics, with groups such as Al-Nahda and the Freedom and Justice Party declaring their intentions to run for government in elections. During the transitional periods all new emerging political figures committed themselves to upholding women’s rights and to supporting women as an equal part of the new society that was forming.

Tunisia witnessed dramatic changes in respect of female political participation and representation. With a history as a progressive arena for women’s rights in the Middle East, many of the female revolutionaries pointed to the Personal Status Code as an example of legislation which gave women numerous rights. Yet they acknowledged that with Ben Ali treating Tunisia as a personal playground, the upholding of these rights, along with numerous other rights for all Tunisians, had eroded away. As Al-Nahda gained political momentum, they declared a commitment to upholding the rights of women across Tunisia. While Western journalists and commentators questioned the compatibility of Islamist movements with politics and women’s rights, Al-Nahda, particularly through the voice of its female representatives, argued that it would enshrine the protection of women’s rights in the new constitution as it was formed.8

Indeed, Al-Nahda’s subsequent electoral success symbolised the progress of women in the revolution and in post-revolution transition. Al-Nahda instituted a 50:50 ratio of female to male candidates and with this came the election of 60 women out of 217 MPs; of the 90 Al-Nahda MPs, 42 are female. Nine women have been appointed to head new government commissions. However, there are still only 3 female government ministers. This commitment to equal representation symbolised Al-Nahda’s desire to fulfil its obligation to work for all their country’s men and women. Notably, it was under Al-Nahda that the first woman to hold the highest political office in the Middle East occurred when Mehrezia Labidi took her position as Deputy Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament.

When Labidi visited London early in 2012, she answered the question that many western commentators and journalists were keen to ask – was the inclusion of women in Al-Nahda merely a facade? And with this repeated question, came a constantly repeated phrase – the women of Al-Nahda (and of Tunisia) were not there as decor but were keen actors in the revolution and would be too in the politics. Indeed, these women would not allow themselves to be decor and demanded that their voice be heard. It is without doubt, that with her office Labidi’s voice is heard – and with that comes the hope that many more such female voices will be too.

Whilst, the situation cannot be described as anywhere near perfect for the female citizens of Tunisia, it is safe to say that the situation is much improved. Although a report by the International Federation for Human Rights, circulated to the EU and its member states, did report that women in Tunisia faced uncertainties in relation to new laws. Questions about new custody laws and adoption laws were cited as two examples of potential threats to women’s rights.

Though the success of women’s representation in Tunisia has not yet been mirrored across the Middle East, there have been attempts by revolutionary actors to encourage greater women’s rights. In Egypt, whilst the Freedom and Justice Party publicly committed itself to including women in the political transition, only a handful of women were voted in during the elections. Egypt’s political transition has come under much scrutiny for its treatment of women and their representation at political levels. Despite commitments to inclusivity, the new Egyptian cabinet included just two women ministers. Th ere are indeed many more challenges facing women in the new political era, not just in Egypt but across the Middle East. An entire thesis could be devoted to the legislature which poses great difficulties for women in various countries, as well as the challenges of existing societal attitudes towards women and women’s rights.

What did the Arab spring do for women?

It would be impossible to provide a full analysis of the Arab Spring’s effect on the lives of women and its female actors, primarily because in many instances the Arab Spring continues in varied forms as the countries continue constantly to adjust to new rules of law and governance. Yet, what cannot be denied is the role that women played in the Arab Spring and the potential that this has given women to determine their own futures in their newly liberated countries. The Arab Spring gave women a platform for their voices to be heard.

In some instances, this was a success: the role of women in Tunisia and specifi cally the Al-Nahda party highlighted the importance of women’s rights. It showcased how a new political identity could be formed with the inclusion of women and, more importantly, it highlighted the necessity to include women in these forums. Not only had the women been participants in the Spring – but they too would be participants in the future. Of course, there are innumerable challenges that occurred – both during the Spring and since. Whilst it would be difficult to list them all, they cannot be ignored. There are challenges of representation in Egypt, in a number of countries it is the legislation and perhaps across the board it is the challenge of old, patriarchal dominancy which still poses a challenge to the women.

It should also be noted that ‘women’ in this context do not represent a homogenous group. They have varied, sometimes contrasting, goals and ambitions, but despite this, they are all hoping that they have the opportunity to voice their numerous concerns and demands. It would be reckless to conclude that the Arab Spring had brought about complete equality for women, but it is noteworthy that women were given such attention. For the first time in recent Middle Eastern history, women played a crucial role in defining their countries’ futures.

So, what did the Arab Spring do for women? It amplified their voices across the Middle East, their demands for a better future for themselves, their families and their countries and their demand to end to injustice, brutality and corruption. Of course, there is much more that all these different women want to achieve, but the Arab Spring has provided the first leap towards their myriad of goals.

Published in Arches Quarterly, Volume 6, Edition 10.

End Notes

  • 1. Tawakul Karman was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 alongside Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
  • 2. A ‘Google news’ search of “women in the Arab Spring” brings up 16,500 results – a Google search of the term brings up 153,000,000
  • 3. The Personal Status Code was adopted in 1956 by President Bourgiba in order to protect the family lives of Tunisian women, abolishing polygamy, requiring the consent of both spouses to conclude a marriage contract and giving men and women equal access to divorce before a court.
  • 4. Sengupta, Kim (2011). “Tunisia: ‘I have lost my son but I am proud of what he did'”, The Independent (21 January)
  • 5. Almasmari, Hakim & Jamjoom, Mohammed (2011). “Women march in Yemen’s capital”, CNN (17 October)
  • 6. Mohsen, Habiba (2012). “What made her go there? Samira Ibrahim and Egypt’s virginity test trial”, Al-Jazeera English (16 March)
  • 7. Ibid
  • 8. Mcrobie, Heather (2012). “Will the Tunisian constitution erode the gains of women in the revolution”, New Statesman (15 August)

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.