Women fighting back in the wake of the Arab Spring

Hopes were high that the uprisings that began in 2011 across the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) would bring not just democratization, but greater gender equality. Rather than safeguarding women’s equal rights, these revolutions have so far reinforced patriarchy in many states rocked by the uprisings. But Arab women are fighting back.

Revolutions in the making in Egypt and Tunisia

The MENA region has a rich and long history of women’s activism, including protesting in the streets. During national revolutions in the region, Arab women participated extensively in anti-colonial struggles as they are now partaking in the Arab uprisings. But when the revolutionary dust cleared and constitutions were decided upon after independence from colonial rulers, women were by and large side-lined in the decision over women’s legal rights within the new nation states in MENA. Is history repeating itself in the wake of the Arab spring?

In Egypt, the 12% women’s quota in parliament was abolished following the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Following the 2011 elections, only 2% of the parliamentarians are women despite the fact that women are active participants in political and religious parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood which won the majority of the votes.

With the exception of the quota law, no other laws have been reversed. But pro-women gains during the Mubarak regime are being fiercely debated, especially a law reform from 2000 which allowed Egyptian women to initiate divorce in court without the consent of the husband. Pro-women gains made and fore fronted by Suzanne Mubarak are sidelined by political actors from most camps because they are too strongly associated with the autocratic past. According to an Egyptian woman activist this is “a false politicization of the laws and an excuse to rescind certain women’s rights”. In her opinion, both secular and Islamic forces are equally guilty in marginalizing women in post-revolutionary Egypt. Despite sexual harassment from the security forces, women are relentlessly protesting in the streets and beyond to claim their rightful place in decision making in Egyptian society and state.

The re-negotiation of an autocratic pro-women legacy is also taking place in Tunisia. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was celebrated by the international community and presented as a model for the Arab world in terms of women policies. The country is infamous for prohibiting polygamy, as the only Arab country, in 1956. Critics would say that because of a range of pro-women legislation under Ben Ali, the West turned a blind eye to his crimes against the Tunisian people. Since the Islamist party al-Nahda won the vast majority of the votes in the 2011 elections, women’s rights has occupied a central place in public debate as a focus of both political activism and social anxieties. Secular activists expressed a fear that al-Nahda would re-introduce polygamy and set Tunisian women two steps back rather than one forward in terms of rights. But unlike Egypt, Tunisia adopted a women’s quota which mandates gender parity on electoral lists with an equal number of women and men as candidates on every political party’s electoral list. This is regarded as the most radical form of women’s quota globally. But in the first draft to a new constitution, female representatives to the Parliament (27%) from al-Nahda defended article 28 which says that women and men should be complementary in the family. Complementarity is a concept often employed by Islamists. It is placed within a paradigm of gender equity where women’s public rights in politics, education and work is promoted on an equal footing to men, but where complementarity rather than equality is presented as the model for the Muslim family. This has evoked fierce debates in Tunisia and shows that there are conflicting visions of women’s rights and roles, even among women themselves. Ten thousands of women activists took to the streets and protested against article 28. As a result, “complementarity” was removed from the second draft of Tunisia’s new constitution.

A New Arab Consciousness

During decades of autocratic rule, Arab women have been active in a range of social and religious organizations, associations, charities, political parties and NGOs both nationally and transnationally. Women were not in any ways dormant or passive before the uprisings. But the landscape of women’s activism is diverse and at times fragmented. Arab women protesting during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia shared the goal to end dictatorships, but they fundamentally disagree on the visions for the future political setup of these countries and women’s roles and rights within the new polity.

We have to take into consideration that Arab women is not a homogenous group. They are divided (the same way men are) along political, class and religious dimensions. Additionally, there is an array of gender ideologies at play, some fiercely calling for equality between the sexes within both secular and Islamic frames, Islamists advocating complementarity between men and women and the Salafists take it even further and demand gender segregation.

Not matter what the post-revolution periods in Egypt and Tunisia and beyond have in store for them; women are prepared to fight for their rights. Azza Karam suggests that there is an emerging new consciousness in the region where the Arab people have crossed “the Rubicon of fear” to reclaim their dignity. In such an analysis there is no way that the uprisings will bring women backward rather than forward. What is perfectly clear is that Arab women from diverse backgrounds are more than capable of activism and of expressing their own needs, interests, hopes and fears in the revolutions taking place before our eyes.

This text appears in FOKUS’s magazine Kvinner sammen, July 2013.