The strong theme of women’s participation in the Arab uprisings has been lauded throughout the world. However, in the year long tumult and deposing of dictators, the role and status of Arab women remains in flux. In one newspaper in Libya, the headline read, “The role of the female in Libya”. “She is the Muslim, the soldier, the protester, the journalist, the volunteer, the citizen”.
The same labels can be applied to women across North Africa, The Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. They have marched, chanting slogans for the end of repression and in the months of dissent, the number who took to the streets increased. Young female liberals, as well those covered in black garb from head to toe, to mothers and grandmothers, to the professionals and uneducated, all stood side by side. These striking images dismissed the view of women as deferential, subservient, and confined to a life indoors. They wanted the same thing as everyone else, as much as everyone else, if not more.
In Egypt, women were proactive in organising protests, setting up camps and shelter for demonstrators in Tahrir Square, providing food, blanket and amenities to support the demonstrations and their fellow citizens. In Bahrain, they the first wave of protestors to descend on Pearl Square, and in Libya, joined rebels in the war against Qaddafi’s forces. They are hailed as martyrs as many lost lives in their quest for greater freedom, for their people and the end of tyranny.
But we should not be lulled into thinking that the new dynamics posed by the uprisings and revolutions are irreversible. Nothing is guaranteed. Despite all their concerted efforts to sustain the Arab uprising, it still seems that women are not even a step closer towards the road to greater equality. They were and are still at the forefront of the uprisings, but their role in the aftermath has been limited, and seems to be gradually curtailed and disappearing from the public’s imagination.
While change is being implemented politically and ideologically, the status of women still remains in flux. In Tunisia women gained 25% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly and were active in administering the October elections. Women are still, however, excluded from political participation in Egypt – during the parliamentary elections, there was not one female candidate. In addition to exclusion from national politics, they are still subject to torture, violence and second class treatment. It seems that their political activism has been restricted to demonstrations.
We are tempted to draw grand conclusions that Arab women are freer than they were before and that perception of women has changed just because images of them marching with men, breaking away from the typical stereotype of a segregated society could pertain to a new era of gender dynamics. The reality tells a very different story.
As the revolutionary fervour started to die down and dictators started to fall, women’s rights were the first to be relegated. They were championed through the revolution but then female bloggers and journalists were detained, female protestors were sexually harassed and endured torture. The uprisings aimed to end tyranny and oppression. But we have to ask if it really has as the habitual and passive oppression Arab women continues to betray our empathetic sentiments.
Shocking reports about the Egyptian military’s unforgiveable and humiliating treatment of women after arresting a number of female protestors and forcing them to undergo virginity tests, along with videos of an Egyptian female protestor being beaten up, dragged through the crowd and carelessly stripped of her garments within an inch of her modesty revealed the sexual brutality that Egyptian women face in public life. Although an Egyptian court has ruled against virginity tests, their execution is a foreboding and a stark reminder of the perception of women prevalent in Arab societies and what they have to endure as a result of the tarrying traditional gender dynamics through the months of upheaval.
In addition to the human rights abuses against women carried out by the military, who are supposed to be protecting the citizens, the recent political developments in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco with the entry of Islamist parties into government breeds very little optimism about the rights of women under an Islamist government.
Plus, many Arab women’s decision to vote for Islamist parties and subsequently and, let’s not forget, democratically, assist in the creation of a religiously dominated government, whose ultimate aim is implementing Shari’a law, which dominantly favours men, could leave these women at quite a disadvantage. Their contribution to the uprisings is being given the back seat and as is historically and typically known of the Middle East, the men have started to dominate the political arena.
Quite surprisingly, though, the Islamist dominance has not voiced any significant changes to the social standing of Arab women as we would anxiously anticipate. The revolutions are being steered in the direction of democracy. Gradually they should grant women civil liberties, if the Middle East and North African nations are serious about implementing democratic reforms and cultivate civil society based on the principles of freedom and equality.
Women have definitely played a pivotal role in the uprising. Although their efforts are not being rewarded at home, internationally, they are gaining recognition. Yemeni activist, Tawakkul Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her part in leading the uprisings in Yemen. The award is a clear indication that the theme of women in the uprisings and revolutions will continue. It is also a door to uncovering the new polemic for Arab women to construct their identity according to their own understanding and not of that which has been superimposed by religious or political mechanisms. Slowly, and gradually they can take advantage a new democratic mechanism as a strong campaign for equal rights and greater representation, politically.
In the Arab world and the rest of the Middle East including Iran and Israel, women from all walks of life are ready to contribute to the creation of a progressive society that upholds values such as freedom, social equality and democracy. Currently, situation looks justifiably dismal for Arab women, but their interminable efforts and resistance against sexual harassment and violence by the military and police has successfully resulted in a continuing presence. Their courage and determination is outstanding and has set a new precedence for the female touch in the Arab uprisings.
They played a key role in successfully undermining 30 years of dictatorial rule through mass mobilisation and peaceful protests. Now, Arab women can continue to utilise the peaceful mechanism to chip away at the edifices of misogyny and their campaign against age old ideals, as they already have done for years with a new confidence and intellect during this transitional period.
How the situation for Arab women will develop, we can only wait and see. No one had ever predicted that we would see the fall of three major dictators. Therefore we can only wait and see how the popular revolution will transform the lives of its instigators.