Arab World: The 'fallen' heroines of the Arab spring

The Guardian

Since the start of the wave of uprisings that have swept the Arab world, "establishment" figures, especially women, have been celebrated as the "icons" of the revolution – symbols of its homegrown, indigenous nature. Tawakkol Karman in Yemen, and Saida Saadouni in Tunisia are examples of this fierce matriarchy. They are of the tradition, and respected more so because of it. Hijab-clad, religiously conservative and socially conventional, they reserve their rebellion for the political arena, rendering them relatively immune to accusations of immorality or harsh personal attacks.

Karman is a member of an Islamic political reform party and a mother of three in a stable marriage, and Saadouni is in her late seventies and hailed as "the mother of the Tunisian revolution".

But there is another breed of vanguard, whose members exist somewhat on the periphery, or who have been ostracised and dismissed as eccentric or louche. Those who, for some reason, in their personal or professional lives, have "fallen".

The latest member of this contingent is the controversial "Gay Girl in Damascus" – a half-American half-Syrian blogger based in Damascus who was allegedly kidnapped two days ago. There are allegations that she is an agent, a hoax, her very existence doubted. Hardly an everywoman, but she has nevertheless captured attention and galvanised people. As a blogger she has garnered more support than the unpublished.

More importantly however, whether real or fake, or real with a dash of poetic licence, she demonstrates the benefits of opting out of mainstream values:

"My views are heavily informed by being both a member of a small marginal minority as an Arab Muslim in America and as a part of a majority as a Sunni in Syria, and of course as a woman and as a sexual minority."

Being, as she describes herself, "the ultimate outsider", is a position that is bittersweet: you are denied the cushioning comfort and acceptance of an extended circle of friends and family, a warm cocoon of predictable familiarity (she speaks of the terror she felt when she realised the life that was mapped out for her was not to be), but also given a vantage point, from which to criticise and point out the truths that others cannot.

Wajeha al-Huwaider in Saudi Arabia, much maligned as a "self-publicist" and a constant thorn in the side of the authorities (she was recently arrested for trying to smuggle the Canadian wife of a Saudi national out of the country), is a divorced single mother, as is Manal al-Sharif, the now infamous martyr of the Women2Drive campaign.

To be a divorcee in the kingdom and many other parts of the Arab world remains a social taboo equalled by little else. Nawal el Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist and human rights campaigner, is twice divorced and three times married, and grew up in a family where she imbibed the bitter legacy of a father persecuted and marginalised by the government.

For women such as these it is tempting to cut and run, to reject those who have rejected you, to either become a recluse or flee altogether. It is a double-edged sword. To be gay or lesbian, divorced, widowed, an atheist – or simply a man or a woman not willing to indulge in the hypocrisy of heterosexual chastity or faux religious piety – presents great challenges to be navigated in everyday life. But it also gives one the beneficial position of not having much to lose, or having less to lose than the more conventional. It is hence liberating, and allows one to believe despite being branded an unbeliever (Amina maintains her commitment to religion despite being "out"), to be moral despite being branded immoral, and to be patriotic despite being branded as an agent of the west.

As a female growing up in different parts of the Arab world, it struck me early on that there was an unspoken rule of survival: separate one's thoughts and convictions from one's public behaviour – if the two do not naturally align.

In compliance, I spent much of my youth attempting to cleave the two, and most of my later years trying to darn back together what years of training had taught me to separate. The latter, though, could only be achieved through distance, through becoming somewhat of an outsider, or just enough of an outsider to be able to attempt to transcend some of the more immediate demands of polite society. But this inevitably means forfeiting the unquestionable acceptance of peers and family.

Writ larger, this dynamic also manifests itself politically – the Arab political arena being one large "polite society" where one never voices one's true concerns lest they be spurned and punished. Millions across the Arab world are now breaking this silence, and reclaiming the right for thoughts and actions to be one.

But perhaps we should also celebrate those who had been doing that when there were no comrades; those who are rejected by mainstream society yet still maintain love for their countries, enough to return to them when they did not have to; to protest and put their lives on the line; to not allow themselves to be defined by the parameters they cannot fit, and hope that when the revolutionary fervour has died, society will not continue to judge them too harshly.