Is the Arab Spring Leaving Women in the Cold?

Women’s contribution to the popular protests that swept the Arab world is energetic and inspiring. Some of the bravest people in the Arab countries battling for a democratic future are women. They are doctors and lawyers, writers, human rights activists among others.

In Bahrain women, including doctors, university professors and students, have been kidnapped or arrested and tortured by the Bahraini security forces since the beginning of the latest uprising in February this year. The image of the silent and oppressed Arab woman was totally shattered when the Bahraini 20-year-old woman poet, Ayat Al-Qurmuzi read her poem in Tahrir Square. It was an amazing act of courage and defiance. She called for the king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s resignation and openly challenged his oppressive rule. She called, ‘Bahrain is owned by Al Khalifa. It is my Bahrain.’  She heard that the authorities are looking for her so she went into hiding upon her return to Bahrain. The security forces coerced the Qurmuzi family into disclosing her whereabouts. On 31 March she was arrested and the family heard no word from her since. Her mother, devastated, recorded a heart-rending plea for her release on YouTube and it went viral. She also spoke to the international media begging for mercy. She, like many other Arab mothers, was pushed into activism and visibility by her plight. When the family started searching for Ayat the police told them they had no information about her and tried to force them to sign a letter stating that their daughter had gone missing. In mid-April, an anonymous call was made to the Qurmuzi family informing them that Ayat was ill. Doctors confirmed later that Ayat had gone into a coma after being raped for several times. Eventually, the physicians’ efforts failed to save Ayat’s life and she died at the army hospital.

Similar to Bahraini women Libyan women work side by side with men to keep the revolution alive, society and economy functioning and uprising visible. Women are fighting on the many fronts, organising popular committees, feeding the family and nursing the sick. They also address the public in Benghazi and aid the herds of international media. On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of women took to the streets in Benghazi to call for freedom, to clamour for peace, and to honour their dead. There is no doubt that women in Libya are the backbone of the revolutionary movement.

In some cases they are perceived as the instigators of the uprisings. In Egypt shortly after the ousting of Ben Ali a 26-year old Asmaa Mahfouz, a computer company employee and now a prominent member of Egypt’s Coalition for the Youth Revolution, has been credited with having sparked the protests that began the uprising in January 2011 in Cairo. In a video blog posted on facebook on January 18, she urged Egyptians to fight for their human rights and to voice their disapproval of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. IShe challenged Egyptians to take to the street by saying, ‘If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th. Whoever says women shouldn’t join protests because they will get beaten let him have some honour and manhood and come with me on January 25th. To whoever thinks it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people I say, “You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any policeman who beats us in the streets.”’ She appeared wearing the veil and her message was in harmony with her prescribed role as a Muslim woman.

The same tactic has been adopted by 30-year old Yemeni activist Tawakul Abdel Salam Karman. Karman is a journalist, staunch defender of freedom of the press, an advocate for human rights, and a member of the Islamist party Islah. On January 23, Yemeni officials detained Salam Karman for leading protests at the university in Sana’a in support of the Tunisian revolution and calling for the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over thirty years. As a result of violent street protests that erupted against her arrest, the government soon released Salam Karman from detention. She is now a key figure in a revolution that has yet to run its course.

Bringing to mind The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo or the disappeared in Argentina hundreds of Syrian women marched along the country’s main coastal highway to demand the release of men seized from their home town of Baida, where the police beat and kicked handcuffed detainees on camera recently. This is one of many organised protests by Syrian women.

Many Arab women activist appear wearing the hijab and although their messages are beamed through modern modes of communication and have a reformist agenda they are clothed literally and metaphorically in traditional dress. Women’s movements in the past were led by secular feminist. This tactic of subverting and reinventing ‘traditional’ expectations of womanhood in the service of revolution can be found in number of women’s movements in the region. It is a point of departure for Arab and Muslim women.

Whatever their tactics Arab women play a crucial role in revolutions sweeping the region, but alas most of their menfolk are not supportive of them and do not see the ‘women question’ as crucial. Not one single slogan in all the uprising is about the inferior position of women or is calling for parity between the sexes. Men still see gender-equality lower down the scale than sovereignty and democracy and some believe that women are inferior. Many historical, religious, political and social reasons are behind the widespread belief that Arab women are ‘lesser beings’, weak and impressionable, therefore, cannot be trusted with the grave responsibilities of full citizenship and leadership.

During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt women were seen as figureheads and sometimes used as mascots to mobilise men, but when the dust settled many were asked to go back to the kitchen where they belonged. An Egyptian woman, who took part in the uprising in Tahrir Square, was worried. ‘The men were keen for me to be here when we were demanding that Mubarak should go,’ she told Catherine Ashton in Cairo, ‘but now he has gone, they want me to go home.’

And the domestic sphere is where the problem for Arab women really lies. After demonstrating in the streets women went home to archaic familial hierarchies. One of the most important institutions in the Arab world is the family, where patterns of oppression are normally produced and reproduced. Hisham Sharabi argues that the extended family is the predominant model in the Arab world, which is normally ruled by the father, who perceives his children as an extension of himself.  The Arab child is oppressed by his father and is over-protected by his mother. ‘Paternal domination can only be disabled by women emancipated through a complete restructuring of the nuclear family.’ Drawing women into active participation in decision-making bodies starts by changing the family structure to become more egalitarian. This will gradually be reflected in other institutions in society. As familial structures are revised, then other societal structures will follow.

Moreover, all citizens of the Arab world (male and female) have obligations towards the state, but do not enjoy many political, civil and social rights. Females are still less equal than their male counterparts. Arab women are second-class citizens, dependent and subordinate. Some women in Jordan were energised and inspired by the uprisings and decided to divorce their abusive husbands only to find that the whole system is tipped against them. Similar to many other Arab countries, women in Jordan cannot pass on their citizenship to their children or husbands; they are still discriminated against by the legal justice system and the judiciary; they need permission from their legal guardians to choose their place of residence or join the labour market. Their right to divorce is still not included in the Personal Status Law, which is mostly based on selective interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith (prophet Mohammad’s saying and deeds).

The recent remarks made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh condemning women’s participation in public protests as being un-Islamic reflects the secondary status of women. Yemen’s conservative customs concerning women, for example, are not legislated as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Sex discrimination in Yemen is sanctioned both by law and in practice. The Personal Status Law calls for wife obedience, allows marital rape, reinforces stereotypes about women’s roles as caretakers within the home and severely restricts women’s freedom of movement.

Throughout the Arab world fundamental issues, therefore, related to women and their rights have yet to be addressed. Although the picture is still grim the possibilities and challenges are endless in this period of transition. Traditional forces, whether secular or religious, might curtail the role women could play in future democracies.

Although equal rights for all citizens is a by-product of democracy the road to achieving that in the Arab world is long and winding and the future is unknown and unmapped. If traditional forces, regardless of their beliefs, triumph then women’s rights will be last on the agenda and will perhaps be traded off in brokering for power. In every Arab country there is what Leila Ahmed dubbed ‘Establishment Islam’. It is a technical and legalistic version of Islam that largely bypasses its ethical thrust and humane and egalitarian spirit. There are many manifestations of this narrow and selective interpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith. For example, Saad al-Husseini, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, its highest executive body, stated that while the ‘Freedom and Justice’ party’s new platform must still be approved by the Guidance Office and its Shura Consultative  Council and will adhere to the Ikhwan’s position on the presidency. Many members of the MB argued that a woman cannot hold final power over a man nor a non-Muslim over a Muslim. In other words neither a Coptic Christian nor a woman could run for president of Egypt.

Some Tunisian Islamic parties are making similar noises, although much more subtle and less pronounced. A majority of Tunisia’s High Commission, which is responsible for planning the July 24 elections in Tunisia, voted to ensure parity between men and women in the membership of the National Constituent Assembly.  Electoral lists will have to adhere to parity between male and female to be accepted. However, Islamists, who are becoming more vocal in post-revolution Tunisia, pointed out that women should earn their political rights by merit and should not be granted automatic access to political positions by applying positive discrimination. The debate is heated and the jury is out on this issue. Khadija Cherif, a long-time feminist activist, said to NPR that the return of Islamist parties to Tunisian politics could pose a threat but women will remain vigilant. ‘The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we’ve never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society. We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.’ Even if the next elections bring in Islamic parties, their manifesto has to be inclusive and egalitarian otherwise women’s space in the emerging democracies will be defined and restricted by religion.

Despite all the challenges women continue to be political within an undemocratic and mostly authoritarian context. They are calling for a form of democracy in which they can play as great a role as men. However, there are worrying signs that this may be denied to them. Tackling women’s rights is a key to unleashing liberal and modernist forces in the Arab world, but old practices and prejudices prevail. For example, the position of Islamist in Tunisia, or virginity tests conducted on arrested female demonstrators in Egypt, or the mercurial position of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on women’s presidency. The eradication of discrimination – whether on grounds of gender, race, religion or sexuality – is the only road to full citizenship rights. Participatory democracy requires not only the right to form political parties and freedom of expression, fair elections, but a generosity of spirit and a willingness to view one’s fellow citizens as fundamentally equal.

The fact is that participatory democracy cannot be achieved without elevating women to the status of full citizenship. Democracy, women’s liberation and equality are intimately connected and both have in common a concern with emancipation, freedom both personal and civic, human rights, integrity, dignity, equality, autonomy, power-sharing, liberation and pluralism. Women’s emancipation leads to emancipation of other groups within the political polity. No future state can be called democratic if personal and group freedoms are limited. The Arab spring will not endure and the shoots planted will not grow without liberating ‘the last colony’, Arab women, and empowering them.

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