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Women in the ‘Arab Spring’- Will they be free?

By Missing Peace

by Sharon Shaked  researcher Arab affairs Missing Peace

The Arab Spring, as it is officially called, has already managed to change history forever.
But the fact that the populations stood up against their tyrannical regimes and demanded reform and a better life is no guarantee  that the situation in the Arab countries will really improve.

The historian and Middle East expert  Bernard Lewis once blamed the backwardness of the Arab world and the lack of peace on the absence of women in important spheres of society.

The way women and minorities are treated in post-revolution countries is perhaps the best indication that the ‘Arab Spring’ does not mean that people will be free. On the contrary, women seem to be back to square one and that doesn’t bode well for the chances for democracy, modernization and peace.

Women participated actively in the protests around the Arab world.
They showed no fear when they stood up against their regimes.
For the first time ever they were able to give a different impression  of themselves than the one that many people, mainly in the West, have had of Arab women.
This time they were in the foreground of the protests  and fighting alongside their male counterparts against the regimes that had oppressed them for years.

It was clear however, that the participation of women in the protests was not directly about an improvement of their rights.

It has become easier for them to demonstrate and to speak their minds freely in particular  because of new technologies such as social media. These new technologies gave them a platform from which to share their opinions and to call upon other people to join them in the struggle.
For the first time ever they were able to do this without fearing harassment or attack.
partly because social media gave them the opportunity to remain anonymous.


In Egypt one of the people who ignited the Tahrir Revolution was a young woman named Asmaa Mahfouz .
She posted a video message on YouTube calling upon people to join the protests at Tahrir Square. Afterwards she became one of the well known faces of the Egyptian revolution.


But there were more.  Earlier in Iran it was Neda, a 16 year old girl who was shot  to death by a sniper of the Basiji pro-government militia forces. Neda’s death became the symbol of the Iranian protests against the disputed re-election of president Ahmadinejad.

Another example is the Yemenite Tawakkul Karman who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights and reform work in Yemen.
Karman became famous within her country and internationally when she openly called for reform and for change in the tribal and conservative Muslim society in Yemen.
She has been a human rights activist for years known to Yemenites as the “Mother of the Revolution” or the “Iron Woman”.
When she was arrested in January 2011 for demanding reforms, hundreds of thousands of Yemenites took to the streets to protest her indictment, demanding  the ouster of President Saleh.


In Libya too, women took an active part in the struggle against Qadaffi.
At the outset of the rebellion they marched in the streets of Benghazi and assisted the front-line fighters by providing food for them and by setting up medical facilities to treat wounded fighters.

In Libya, like in Yemen, it was actually a woman who ignited the process that in the end was able to topple Qadaffi.
She was the mother of human rights lawyer Fatih Turbel who sat in front of the Benghazi courthouse to protest against the imprisonment of her son.  He was detained for demonstrating against Qadaffi’s prison massacre of 1996.
She refused to leave and was joined in her protest by many other people.  When they were shot at by Qadaffi’s forces, they started to call for an end of the dictator’s rule. These calls soon spread across Libya and eventually caused the collapse of the Qadaffi regime .


It remains to be seen if there will be a real democracy in the countries where regimes were toppled. It is even more doubtful that the situation of the women will  change for the better.
These societies have always been traditional and they are very conservative.
Most of all they are patriarchal societies where women are subordinate to men. It is almost certain that  this will not change.
As one Egyptian man said on the subject of a female president: “All Egyptians reject the idea. We’re used to men ruling. Who ruled in my house? My Father!”.


In the post-revolution countries Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, men who were eager to involve women during the protests now say that they don’t need them anymore and  that they can go home to their former subordinate roles.
But that’s not all.  Women who continue to demand change are increasingly being attacked by men both physically and verbally.

For example in Egypt an army spokesman publicly questioned  the morals of the young women who camped in the square overnight alongside male protesters.  The military even gave ‘virginity tests’ to female protesters.

In Yemen a group of women was attacked by pro-government thugs who threw stones at them while they were celebrating the Nobel Peace Prize win of Tawakul Karman.

And in post-revolution Tunisia men shouted at a group of women’s rights activists: demonstrating for equal rights “Women at home, in the kitchen!”.

As soon as the Tunisian Islamist Al-Nahda party secured its status as the largest group in Tunisia, the party’s iconic spokeswoman, Souad Abderrahim, called single mothers a “disgrace” and declared that they “do not have the right to exist.”

When Bothaina Kamel, a Egyptian woman, announced that she would run for the country’s presidency, the Egyptian media asked: “Can society accept this? Islamic preachers have suggested that a woman can’t be president because menstruation incapacitates her.”

In countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia many women are highly educated. In some countries they even hold jobs that have traditionally been men’s jobs, such as in medicine and engineering. Nevertheless they’re mostly left out of government positions and high power jobs.

In countries that are in the midst of transformational processes that should end up in democracy, it  looks like women will still not be able to obtain influential government positions.
Take for example Libya, where the Transitional National Council (TNC) gave a woman named Hania al-Gumati a “soft” government post, dealing with orphans, women and families.

Pipe dream

In  societies where honor killings are still taking place on a daily basis, and in countries that will be ruled by Sharia law it seems a pipe dream that there will be a real improvement in the situation of women.

Women are out on the streets for now but after that they are left out of the decision making processes. Most of the time they’re expected to return to their traditionally subordinate roles. One does not have to a pessimist to fear that they will not see any real improvement in their position in society.

As Time Magazine wrote in an article on  women in the Arab Spring: “Most of the time women were good for revolutions, but historically revolutions were not good for women”.