Voices Carry: The Role of Women in North African Revolutions

Originally published in the April 2011 edition of Italianieuropei.

Civil uprisings exploded across the Middle East and North Africa in the past few months. Protests in Tunisia spurred a chain reaction. Ignited by the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed college student who set himself on fire in front of a government building after the police wouldn’t let him work, civilians poured into the streets, outraged by a lack of employment and political corruption. Women played a pivotal role in these recent revolutions.

Women’s empowerment holds the key to many social issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention and poverty reduction. Yet many nations in the Middle East and North Africa choose not to focus on women’s healthcare, education or economic empowerment as reform and change are often associated with many negative -isms: Westernism, materialism, consumerism, colonialism, feminism. Dr. Isobel Coleman, Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council of Foreign Relations and author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet, said at a talk at Harvard on April 5th,

“When you under invest in half your population, you’re going to suffer.”

Investing in girls’ education has an enormous impact. Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (authors of the book Half the Sky), along with many other NGOs, researchers and activists, purport the “girl effect;” increasing education for women leads to them getting jobs, delaying marriage and reducing the number of children, all the while infusing the economy with additional funds and labor.  Two-thirds of the illiterate population in the Arab world is female. But that’s starting to change as the Middle East boasts rising levels of educated girls. In many parts of the world, women are outnumbering men in higher education; and the same is true in the Middle East. More and more women receive education and they’re pushing for change.

Women in Tunisia, who have many of the same legal rights as men, played an equal role in the revolution, protesting and fighting for change with the men. Lawyer Bilel Larbi told NPR,

“Just look at how Tunisian women stood side-by-side with Tunisian men. They came out to the streets to protest in headscarves. They came out in miniskirts. It doesn’t matter. They were there.”

After Tunisia, Egypt also erupted in a civil uprising. The largest anti-government protest in Egypt in 30 years, civilians protested President Mubarak’s oppressive regime, calling for his resignation. Women and men marched in the streets demonstrating, incited by skyrocketing inflation and a severe lack of jobs, calling for change. At Double X, Jenna Krajeski writes about the numerous women involved in the Egyptian

“An unprecedented number of Egyptian women participated in Tuesday’s anti-government protests. Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, estimated the crowd downtown to be 20 percent female. Other estimates were as high as 50 percent. In past protests, the female presence would rarely rise to 10 percent.”

While 20-50% of women protested, sadly, many American news broadcasts mostly ignored women’s participation. On Facebook, Leil-Zahra Mortada compiled photos in an album called the “Women of Egypt,” chronicling women protesting in Egypt. So why are so many women protesting? Krajeski attributes the high number of women’s involvement to frustration and the hope of change:

“The Facebook-initiated groups are unaffiliated with a major opposition group. These protests also seemed safer. Organizers urged those attending to make it a peaceful one, and this became a rallying cry in some areas of the city on Tuesday. Moreover, Egypt’s educated youth, men and women, were fed up with a government that had not changed at all in most of their lifetimes, and which cuts even the educated off from any opportunity. And then there was Tunisia. Suddenly, attending the protest seemed not only worth the risk, but capable of inciting real change.”

Dr. Coleman warned that Western societies tend to conflate the Middle East and North Africa as one monolithic region. But it’s nuanced and varied; each country faces its own unique situation. The revolutions didn’t happen out of thin air overnight; tensions have been building for years. In Egypt, protests against the government occurred in the 1970s and the Mubarak regime suppressed student demonstrations in the 1990s.

Currently, Libya confronts a brutal civil war and human rights atrocities as Colonel Gaddafi’s regime attacks Libyan citizens. While we haven’t seen quite as much media coverage, due to media restrictions in the country, women fiercely protest in Libya too. Sarah Abdurrahman, a U.S.-based journalist, tweets updates from her contacts in Libya. Just as Jan. 25 Voices shared information about the protests in Egypt via the social media site Twitter, Abdurrahman’s twitter feed Feb. 17 Voices, named after the date commemorating the “Day of Rage” when protests began against Gaddafi, was one of the earliest accounts of what was happening on the ground. Women protested in the city of Misrata. Several thousand Libyan women marched in Benghazi protesting and demanding a no-fly zone so rebels wouldn’t be bombed. Women and men also rallied in Benghazi to protest the rape of Iman al-Obeidi by Gaddafi forces.

People often overlook women in protests or wars, as if they are absent or invisible. Yet women protest, and sometimes fight in combat, alongside men. In many conflicts (and in post-conflict countries too), rape against women is often utilized as a “weapon of war.” But we rarely hear those stories on the nightly news. In the Iranian Revolution in 2009, many women protested, including of course the young woman Neda who was shot and killed as she was on her way to a demonstration, becoming a martyr for anti-government opposition.

While censorship prevails in much of the Middle East, the rise of a freer media, particularly Al Jazeera, helped fuel social movements. “Kalam Nawaem,” an Arabic version of the American talk show “The View,” features four Arab women discussing cooking, child-rearing and lifestyle but also controversial issues such as sexuality, rape and domestic violence. Many bloggers, particularly in Egypt, are women; social media provides an outlet for their voices that they wouldn’t otherwise possess. Through social media, women can be at home yet still advocate for change. Social media certainly did not cause the revolutions but it helped spread information and messages of both dissent and support.

Women’s lives do not exist separately in these revolutions; both genders advocate for social justice. Activists for Egypt’s Million Women March said,

“The bodies of women, so often used as ideological battlegrounds, have withstood all kinds of police violence, from tear gas to live bullets. The real battleground did not differentiate between women and men.”

But this is not the first instance of women taking to the streets. The Arab world has a long history of women’s and feminist movements, starting in the 1860s with female poets according to Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke in their book Opening the Gates. The protests and overthrow of the government in Tunisia galvanized student revolutionaries elsewhere. Women took a very active role; Tunisia and Egypt boasted female activists, bloggers and protesters. They are also the two countries with the most secular-leaning governments in the Middle East, dating back to President Nasser in Egypt and President Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia. After Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, President Bourguiba passed many laws (divorce, child custody, outlawing polygamy) to further the rights of women. Women have had access to birth control since 1962 and Tunisia legalized abortion in 1965, boasting one of the most progressive reproductive rights policies in the Middle East and North Africa. Women in ancient Egypt held equal status and rights as men and Egyptian women have a long history of protesting, for at least a century as women protested during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919.

The creation of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923 sparked the first nationwide feminist movement in Egypt. Egypt recently made strides towards gender equity (at least appearing to) with political quotas. In 2009, Egypt passed a law reserving 64 Parliamentary seats for women, an increase of 1500%. And while not a panacea for women’s rights, it’s an important step. A more recent example of protesting, in February last year, women and activists in Egypt demonstrated when judges declared that women were not allowed to serve as judges in the Council of State, “an influential court which advises Egypt’s government.” Women have long advocated for their rights.

Democracy Now spoke with Nawal El Saadawi, an iconic Egyptian feminist and human rights activist, who discussed women protesting alongside the men in Egypt. She declared,

“Women and girls are, beside the boys, are in the streets. We are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy, and a new constitution where there is no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslim and Christians, to change the system and to have real democracy.”

Liz Leslie at Muslim Voices asserts:

“The stereotype that women are oppressed in the Arab world and unable to interact in their societies has been challenged as images of women protesting alongside men have surfaced in Western media.”

As author and political consultant Naomi Wolf wrote for Al Jazeera:

“The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in Egypt did not just “join” the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes – and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.”

While many reasons exist to rejoice in the region, particularly the successes of the political protests in Tunisia and Egypt, there’s still far to go in social change. In Egypt, female protesters who were arrested faced harassment, beatings, strip searches and “virginity tests.” Libya poses its own set of obstacles as civil war has erupted. Also, women face challenges as Tunisia and Egypt rebuild their governments. El Saadawi said,

“Democracy doesn’t exist without women.”

In Egypt, this is a rare opportunity to infuse the new government with policies concerning marriage, divorce, inheritance and sexual harassment that protect and advance women’s rights. Yet with no women on the drafting committee to amend the constitution and no female cabinet ministers, it seems that women’s rights and their views may be shoved aside.

“Egyptian women fought for the overthrow of Mubarak alongside men. But now the male-domination of transitional politics is like going backwards,”

Nadya Khalife poses at Women’s E-News. Dr. Coleman advised that, “Women will have to negotiate for their rights.” She asserted that women’s groups will have to be organized, vocal and use international resources and media; there will be ongoing debates and women will have to be vigilant and be an active part of those debates, particularly to protect their rights.

*One woman in the spotlight forging change is Bothaina Kamel, the first female presidential candidate in the history of Egypt.  As NPR reports, Kamel “fears that at some point, Egyptians will tell her and other women who want a say, “Thanks for working with us to overthrow the regime, but now it’s time for you to go home.” But no one ever gives equality; women must demand change. As Saadawi hopefully asserts,

“Women should be in the street in millions,” she says. “If women … make a march with all their demands, this is the pressure.”

Recent revolutions mark a societal shift. Demonstrations spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa and West Africa as women take to the front lines in Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and the Ivory Coast. Women and men voiced their anger and outrage at oppressive and authoritative regimes; they wanted and demanded change. Women and men protested side by side, transcending gender, unified in their common goal of social change. Yet we can’t ignore women’s involvement as we too often write women out of history, viewing their contributions as somehow less potent than those of men. Women don’t merely sit on the sidelines, having their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons wage battle for them. Women confront corruption, fighting for freedom for their country and themselves. Hopefully the enthusiasm and zeal of female and male activists will translate to not only new policies and greater political involvement, but greater equity for women.

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*Content not in original article.

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