Arab world: Women of the Revolution


The enormous role of women in the uprisings in the MENA region is undisputed. They faced verbal and physical abuse, violence, arrest and death just as their male counterparts. The transformation of these countries has been groundbreaking, and their participation is as important as ever. After the dust of the battle settles, will Arab societies remember to include women in the rebuilding of their countries?

The year 2011 saw a remarkable upsurge of Arab women’s voices in the international media because of the role they played in the political and social movements that have recently swept the region. Women have made front-page news, appeared in broadcast interviews and took part in debates on Facebook. They were up there, body and soul, cheering and fighting for change. Their demands were no different to the demands of their male compatriots. They want a new and modern society that offers freedom. Two of the countries that witnessed a regime change, namely Tunisia and Egypt, have now entered the second phase. Both of them are now busy cleaning up the remnants of the previous era, and preparing for new elections and to draft a new constitution. Yemen is still fighting for change but change has not yet come. Crowds continue to gather in Tahrir Square and in other parts of the country, demanding the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after a rule that has lasted more than three decades.

In the light of this turmoil, after the dust of the battle settles, after corruption is ousted and criminals are tried, when we start preparing for a new political and economic order, will Arab societies remember to reward women for their part in these groundbreaking changes? Without the participation of women they would not have been possible. Many commentators agree on this point at this moment in time, but will their feelings last?

Last April, a national conference took place in Tunisia to discuss exactly this subject. It was designed to address the presence of women in media in the era that followed the revolution. Academics and media professionals attending the conference seemed to suggest that women were now barely present in the debate. It was the male voice that dominated television forums concerned with the future of the country; women only appeared as a matter of exception.

Among the papers presented at the conference was one prepared by researcher Fathia Al-Saidi, who sampled the activities of 550 women operating virtually through Facebook. Her research showed the enormous role these women have played, both before and during the revolution, in issues regarding the abuse of rights. Their activities revealed a revolutionary face never seen before: Their sympathies were with those who died for the revolution. After the revolution, they began to express a new fear, namely, national discord in Tunisia and the exclusion of women from public discourse. The researcher pointed out that a small group of these women did try to push forward liberal religious views but that they were met with attacks from reactionary groups, such as verbal abuse and sexual discrimination.

This is the state of affairs with women in Tunisia. When the revolution broke out, they were used as fuel to help bring down the rule of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Now, after the formation of two new governments, they have been sidelined and forgotten. One recent example is that their participation in government has been limited to one or two ministries, one of which is the Ministry for Women’s Affairs

Today, one can easily sense the anxiety among these women. Follow the discourse on websites, in papers, among women’s organizations and speak to the activists themselves, and you will notice that those who aim to silence them—the Islamic Renaissance movement—have become their primary concern. The implications of this movement’s shift into politics are serious and worrying.

In an attempt to alleviate their fears, a spokesperson for the movement recently said that, “Some of the constraints placed on women are an expression of social traditions and not religious laws.” Rashid Al-Ghannoushi, the leader of the movement, also spoke recently to stress that his party is keen to follow the Turkish example.

Do these fears reflect the lack of popular trust in the future of democracy and the mechanisms that are yet to emerge following the stagnation of the former regime? I addressed this question to Professor Amal Qarami, a specialist in Gender and Islam studies at the University of Tunisia. She said, “People are not concerned with the Islamic Renaissance movement alone. Other Islamic parties also feed this fear. Some of those have already obtained licenses to function as official political parties and some haven’t, like the party of Al-Tahrir and other Salafi groups.” Professor Qarami went on to point out that there exist contradictions between what Islamic leaders say to the press and what they teach in their mosques and at other Islamic gatherings. She added that there is also a discrepancy between the discourse of the leaders and that of their base. Fundamentalist youth in Tunisia want women to return to their place at home; they want the hijab and the niqab to be imposed by force. Their inspiration comes from extremist satellite channels and not from progressive leaders.

The matter doesn’t rest with government. Porfessor Qarami also said that most of the parties, organizations and even Tunisia’s General Workers Union have put forward male candidates to represent them at the Supreme Committee tasked with overseeing the transitional period during which political reform will be carried out in accordance with the aims of the revolution. “Women made up only 20 percent of this committee while, before, in parliament, women amounted to 27 percent.” One can argue that women’s presence in parliament during Ben Ali’s rule, similar to that of the male parliamentarians, was equally inconsequential, but still, numbers are not meaningless.

Shazelia, a Tunisian businesswoman shares this concern: “There is a covert agenda to sideline women in order to appease various parties.” She also speaks of the growing anxiety of many women vis-à-vis the rise of Islamic groups in the country. “We now see some women wearing niqabs and the number of women wearing the veil has also grown from what it used to be like before the revolution.”

Journalist Shiraz Al-Rahali, who writes for Al-Mawqif newspaper, nevertheless, sounds more optimistic: “It is impossible to claim that women did not reap the benefits of the revolution because the initial demand—the fall of the regime—was realized, and efforts are still underway to achieve the rest of the goals.”

At the same time she doesn’t deny the nature of some of the slogans that were voiced at the protests before the fall of the regime such as “Women’s place is at home.” It reminds us of the depth of the anger that people felt towards the president’s wife and the fact that her name was linked with corruption in the country, so no lamenting of the past here.

Another woman, a lawyer called Salsabeel Al-Quleibi, said in her lecture at the Club of Tahir Haddad in Tunis, “We have ousted a corrupt regime that had no social values.” In response to these fears and the pressure from civil society, Tunisian authorities passed new measures that have no precedence in the Arab and Islamic worlds. According to this new decision, women will be awarded half of the seats on the Constituent Assembly during the coming elections in July. The elections will vote in a Constitutional Committee in charge of putting together the new constitution following the departure of Ben Ali.


Women are victims of the “counter revolution” in Egypt

In Egypt, women stood side by side with men on Tahrir Square and other places all over the country after calls from youth groups to gather in protest. The calls came on the 25 of January through web pages such as “We are all Khaled Said” and “The Youth of the 6 of April.” Women joined the protests to demand an end to political oppression and to call for radical reform before they began to demand the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. Women provided logistical support. They checked the identity cards of those who wished to join the crowds on the square, and they fundraised to provide supplies to those stationed on the square around the clock. They faced violence from thugs just as men did. Some gave their lives.

Several women, known as the women of Facebook, became prominent members of the youth groups that led to the fall of the regime last February. Asma Mahfouz, for example, wrote on her Facebook page: “I am going to Tahrir Square.” She did it in order to challenge the young men of her generation to gather their courage and do the same.

Israa Abdel Fattah was another prominent female voice. She became known in the media three years previously when, on 6 April 2008, she called for a strike in solidarity with the workers of Al-Mahallah, who were protesting against high inflation and corruption. Her page at the time managed to attract more than 77,000 members. She wasn’t immune to retribution. Six days later, she was arrested alongside 20 others and put in jail for 20 days.

Activist Dr. Azza Kamel, whose focus is women’s rights, commented on women’s roles in the political mobilization of the country. “For the first time in decades, women are treated as equal to men. There is no difference between those who wear the hijab or the niqab and those who don’t. There is no difference between Muslims and Christians.”

This extraordinary scene was not mirrored in the decisions of post-revolutionary Egypt when two subsequent governments took over the ministry. The committee that was formed to look into amendments of the constitution consisted of nine legal professionals, all of whom were men. This is despite the fact that there are women who enjoy comparable legal qualifications in constitutional matters.

Women reacted by going back to the streets just like on 8 March. They joined men in front of the Union of Journalists holding banners demanding that their requests be met. Again, they joined the crowds on Tahrir Square and in other parts of the country, but this time they met hundreds of thugs and religious fundamentalists waiting to hurl abuse at them. The debates on the square became more crass and uncivilized. You can say women are now victims of what came to be known as the “counter revolution.” The matter requires a new sort of organizing of women through the Coalition of Egyptian Women Societies. Last March the coalition addressed a letter to the prime minister demanding that the new ministries contain female cadres and that women are represented on all committees by at least 30 percent of the total membership. Particular attention was paid to women’s presence on the Constitutional Committee, which will be appointed by the new parliament to look into amendments to the constitution. Despite all this, the new ministries contain only one female minister—the minister of planning.

Abdel Fattah, who works as the head of projects at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, admits that decision makers today are ignoring the role of women. “This is worrying for the future of women’s rights in Egypt.” She also thinks that the success of the revolution will not necessarily lead to a new faith in women’s role in shaping the future. She believes that a real change in the notions that surround the role of women in society will only come about through further consolidated efforts and much more campaigning. In the last few years, there have been some positive changes in civil status laws, and for the first time in its history, the Egyptian judiciary now employs a female judge and a female deputy head of the Court of Appeals.

The Coalition of Women Societies, which contains 15 organizations, is trying to assert their presence and address the marginalization of women in society. The coalition already held one press conference in April where speakers expressed their support for a secular democratic state.

Dr. Fouad Abdel Munaem Riad, a member of the National Committee for Human Rights, also spoke to stress that feminist issues are related to the dominant social culture and cannot be expected to change as a matter of fact as a consequence of the revolution.

This challenge rings true for Israa, who acknowledges that “secular political groups have not succeeded in getting themselves organized in a way that can compete with Islamic movements.”


Will a woman ever become the president of Egypt?

Three women candidates have been discussed in the context of presidential elections expected to take place next autumn. The names have been pushed forward by other female enthusiasts.  Two of these candidates have not yet expressed interest to run but there is already a Facebook page with a large number of followers— male and female—for Counselor Tahani Al-Jabali, deputy chief of justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Although she declined the offer, she did stress the right of Egyptian women to run for the post “The president’s post is not a Khalifet,” she said, “It is a job governed by law and the constitution.”

Another counselor, Nuha Al-Zeini—deputy chair of the Administrative Prosecution Authority in Egypt, told that she definitely supports women candidates running for the presidency because the post of the president is simply a job in government. But, she said, she was not going to run in the coming election because of the culture that dominates the Egyptian street, which is vehemently opposed to the idea. 

So, this leaves media professional Buthaina Kamel as the only female running for president. She has recently announced that she intends to run her election campaign through the Reality TV channel, which will be launched shortly with a program called “Diaries of a presidential candidate.”


The Balqises of Yemen put an end to discrimination by taking to the squares

Those following the events in Yemen would have seen Yemeni women in veils and burqas among the crowds of young people protesting in the streets of the country and demanding the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Those who know the social climate in Yemen and understand the weight of conservative tradition in the country will know the price these women have to pay to withstand the pressures of being female in a religious and patriarchal society. They must not only endure the brutality of the regime, including the government’s latest speeches that condemned the participation of women in demonstrations, but they must also face a common prejudice held by many in their country which condemns their behavior as prohibited by religion.

Tawakul Karman is one of the most prominent media figures and activists to emerge from the new wave of change in the capital Sanaa. In 2009, Reporters without Borders selected her as one of the top seven women who have helped change the world. This young woman has been defying the authorities since 2004 when she established an organization called Yemen’s Women journalists without Chains, the first Yemeni organization ever to scrutinize freedom of speech in the Yemeni press. In the last two years she has led many strikes to demand the closure of the Special Press Tribunal and called on the government to stop meddling with affairs of the press. She has been arrested several times by the authorities for involvement in these issues. There are two facts about Tawakul, the young rebel who took off her niqab in favor of a simple hijab, that will no doubt come as a surprise: First, she is a member of Al-Islah, or The Yemeni Congregation for Reform—the only religious party in the country. In fact, Tawakul is not just an ordinary member; she is a member of the Shura Committee within the party. It seems that she is betting on the young reformists in the party and not on the more conservative wing represented by the party’s leader, Abdel Karim Al-Zindani.

Journalist Widad Al-Badawi, director of the Cultural Media Centre, sums up women’s participation in the Yemeni protests: “The miserable state of affairs for women in the Yemen could be the reason why these women took to the streets to demand a secular government that would ensure their social rights.” Women are demanding the abolishment of tribe related clauses in the state’s laws as these serve to marginalize them. “Women who took to the streets to demand freedom are equally concerned about brutal discriminatory laws that work against them,” Widad said, adding, “There are more than 27 discriminatory laws that we have been fighting against for years without any luck.” She doesn’t believe that women will be forgotten when the revolution is over considering that they have played an active part on, and in some cases leading, steering committees for the revolution throughout the country— in Sanaa, in Ta’izz and Adan.

Writer, journalist and activist Bushra Al-Maqtari, who experienced the shelling of her home by the government, stressed that women entered this revolution as real partners. They have been fully conscious of their demands and very well aware of the challenges that surround them as they stand to face a traditionalist society. In a brief telephone interview with The Majalla, which took place during a government ban on the internet, Bushra commented, “We have very clear demands and they are many. These demands are supported by the youth movement and by many political parties.” One of their central demands is the introduction of female quotas in social and political life. They are also demanding a ban on under-age marriages.

Al-Maqtari thinks that the current political battle reflects a real struggle between an old and a new mentality, between a new progressive project and an old conservative vision. Women, of course, are very much part of this debate. “Yesterday was a bloody day. A number of women activists were arrested and detained by the police. They were all verbally abused. They had to listen to the worst profanities,” Al-Maqtari explained.

In an effort to step away from direct political activism, some women are also speaking. Ghada Saleh, an executive director of a private firm, expressed, “Women need to be equal partners to men, not in words but in deed.”

Rajaa Ali Muqbil, a housewife, also commented:  “We cannot depend on political parties. These often use women for their own ends. We need a push coming from women themselves.” She sees in the Muslim Brotherhood bad news for women. “We have seen precedents in Yemen.”

But, some remain optimistic. Pharmacist Yumna Al-Aswadi believes that Yemen will soon see women occupying prominent positions in the new government, because “Women have led this revolution.”


Women’s Movement

When women joined the protests in the squares they chanted, “People want to overthrow the regime.” What will the future hold for Arab women after these regimes fall?

British journalist Jane Martinson, women’s editor at The Guardian commented, “The revolutions in the Arab world happened because women chose to be part of the push towards democracy.” True. No one could ignore their entrance onto the international media scene. Broadcasters and newspapers chased them for interviews and expressed great interest in their stories. But, after the fall of the governments in Tunisia and Egypt, this interest has disappeared, leading to a serious lack of coverage in their more renewed struggle to take part in the running of the country’s affairs.

At this juncture, both societies have returned to the ease and comfort of their previous behavior that was dominant before the revolution. This applies to both minority and gender issues. The concept of the second-class citizen is still very much alive. In Tunisia, for example, where unions and civil society initiatives are much more commonplace than in other Arab societies, we are still seeing an emphasis on male leadership.

Dr. Qarami reminds us that we are facing political officials who aim to appease the wishes of men rather than meet the aspirations of women. This scenario has repeated itself in every revolution. “It seems that, when men wake up in the aftermath of the revolution, they want to claim all the glory for themselves and make sure that it is not shared by women,” Dr. Qarami exclaimed. However, there are some optimistic signs. For example, in Alexandria, the Justice and Public Political Freedom Movement has just voted in young Amani Al-Sayyed as a general coordinator.  She will be the fist woman to head a youth movement in Egypt. Her example is still a very limited occurrence in a political scene largely dominated by men, whether among the young or the old.  

The women in Tunisia and in Egypt are currently calling for secular governments. They want equality between men, women and other social groups to be reflected in the constitution. So they are fighting on this basis, supported by some men who also believe in their ideas. In Yemen, women are also preparing to address the issue of their rights once Ali Abdullah Saleh steps down, and they have already demonstrated a great talent for debate and negotiation through their work alongside the protestors. Their battle will not be easy. Soon, it might even go in a different direction, and earn the name, The Women’s Movement. In any case, their voices will be heard louder than they have ever been in recent history.


By Ghalia Qabbani

Published: Friday 27 May 2011 Updated: Friday 27 May 2011

Ghalia Qabbani - Syrian journalist, novelist and columnist based in London since 1994.