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Edition 2 Volume 10 - January 12, 2012

Women and the Arab revolutions

Syrian women, backbone of the revolution  - Rime Allaf
Even when they weren't taking to the streets, women's participation in the revolution has been constant.

Women's rights under threat as never before  - John R. Bradley
For all but the starry-eyed, of course, there was never likely to be any other outcome.

Reality check  - Abigail Fielding-Smith
There are grounds for optimism, in the long run at least, for those seeking more equal gender relations.

Arab women, protest and the Arab spring  - Manal A. Jamal
There has been no shortage of women-led protests in Arab history.


Syrian women, backbone of the revolution
 Rime Allaf

On January 10, while President Bashar Assad addressed his supporters in Damascus, Syrian authorities handed the tiny tortured body of a four-month old baby girl to her uncle in Homs. Arrested with her parents a few days earlier, one can only assume, knowing the Syrian regime's documented brutality, that baby Afaf had been thrown into a cell with her mother and submitted to horrific treatment, terrorizing her and her mother and leading to her untimely death.

In its violent repression of the uprising, the Syrian regime has made no distinction between men and women or between adults and children. There has been equality in oppressing, and equality in suffering. But there has also been equality in protesting, albeit in varying degrees of visibility and in different forms.

For the last ten months of the Syrian revolution, many skeptics have repeated the tired refrain that women have been absent from the uprising and that it seems to be a male- dominated (read "Islamist-leaning") protest movement. Such generalizations, meant to discredit the revolution, do much injustice to the women who have lived the uprising from the start at the side of their compatriots.

It is true that the initial Friday-centric demonstrations were, by default, overwhelmingly comprised of men. With no other possibility to gather freely, protesters met at the mosque and grouped at the end of Friday prayers to start marching and chanting, and week after week the presence of women in these demos was negligible. Moreover, there is little doubt that the sheer brutality of the regime, with its blind random shootings, would have led many men to insist that their female relatives remain at home in an attempt to keep them out of harm's way.

In this, the Syrian revolution may have differed from others where women were visible from the start, especially as most other revolutions have begun in big cities. But no other revolution has been suppressed with the ferocity of the Syrian regime, nor has any other country (save for Libya after the military intervention started) endured so many casualties. Declaring the Syrian uprising to be woman-less, therefore, would reflect a rather skewed view on the situation and a superficial understanding of how the Syrian regime acts.

As repression got more brutal, the demonstrations spread throughout the country and extended beyond Friday prayers. This resulted in a noticeable increase of women on the streets of Syria, chanting alongside the men and running under fire alongside men. Some organized women-only demonstrations, others mingled in the mixed crowds and some took microphones to lead gatherings' defiant chants, such as the woman who electrified Homs when she shouted to a roaring crowd that her children would not attend a school that had been used as a torture center.

Even when they weren't taking to the streets, women's participation in the revolution has been constant. They have made signs, helped give first aid to the wounded, and run charity networks to distribute aid to the neediest families under siege from the army. While these activities were not undertaken exclusively by women, they played an important role in the logistics behind the protests.

At the same time, civil activism began to develop into new forms, unveiling Syrian creativity and a pressing urge to raise the voice of the revolution. Initiatives included numerous film clips of women in nondescript interiors, their faces hidden with masks and scarves to protect their identity, holding signs that often centered around a single message that the viewer discovered as the camera went around the room. Such events made the rounds of the social networks in the most YouTubed revolution of the "Arab spring", letting the internet amplify the power of these peaceful protests.

Syrian women have also been essential components of the now famous flash mobs that have so angered the regime with their speed and their efficient messages. Often, women will join the group and start chanting while wearing a headscarf, then separate at the first sign of the infamous "shabbiha" and yank their hijabs off their heads as they melt into the crowd.

Examples of such varied participation are plentiful enough and put to rest the shaky theories about women in Syria's revolution. In fact, when considering the number of prominent female activists, Syria seems to be a leader rather than a follower, rightfully boasting of the women active in civil society and in revolution. Activists such as Suheir Atassi and Razan Zeitouneh, veterans on the socio-political underground scene at the grassroots level, and writers such as Samar Yazbek, have been part and parcel of the civil society movement challenging the regime openly from inside Syria. Since the revolution began, more women have become focal points for the protest movement, including actresses May Skaf, who was one of the first artists to participate in protests and to be arrested, and Fadwa Suleiman, who has been chanting defiantly from the heart of embattled and besieged Homs.

Moreover, the women who have been politically vocal and active in opposition, including in the main organized groups, seem to easily outnumber, especially proportionally, those in other revolutionary countries. There have been numerous Syrian women discussing Syrian affairs on pan-Arab media, and most are well-known among their compatriots.

While they never imagined that their children would be such easy prey for the regime nor intended them to be part of the movement, Syrian women have from the start been an integral element in the revolution. There is no doubt that they will also be an integral component of post-revolution Syria.-Published 12/1/2012 bitterlemons-international.org


Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.


Women's rights under threat as never before
 John R. Bradley

A few weeks after Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed a year ago this month, a small women's rights group held a demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir square to mark International Women's Day. Or at least they tried to. Inspired by the 18 days of largely secular mass demonstrations during which women had fought alongside men on the front lines and to the bitter end, the organizers had called for a million-woman march. Their goal: to ensure that the revolutionaries whom they anticipated would soon be taking control of the reins of power would put female emancipation at the heart of their reform agenda.

In the event, a few dozen women turned out and the demonstration proved to be an ominously brief and sordid affair. For even these mostly veiled women were not safe from sections of the Tahrir mob, who quickly turned angry and violent. They screamed insults at the women, sexually assaulted some of them, and informed them--in addition to any hovering journalists who cared to listen--that their proper place was in the home washing dishes and taking care of their children and menfolk.

Other female demonstrators were also reportedly sexually assaulted and tortured after they were arrested by the Egyptian military, who it turned out would be handing over the reins of power to no one anytime soon. A number were even given "virginity tests" to prove they were promiscuous and thereafter present them as completely beyond the pale for most conservative-minded Egyptians.

Shocked feminist activists, usually from the English-speaking elite, then told the international media with a heavy sigh that a revolution that failed to advance the rights and security of half the population was no revolution at all. It is now clearer than ever that they were correct. Nor by any stretch of the imagination could such a revolution be rationally described as liberal and freedom-loving.

Indeed, a year after the birth of the so-called "Arab spring", the aborted women's right's demonstration in Tahrir square could be taken as symbolizing Egyptian liberals' broken dreams of creating a secular, and by default a more pro-women's rights, society. By extension, the triumph of political Islamism there and throughout the region means that, if anything, women's rights are under threat as never before.

For all but the starry-eyed, of course, there was never likely to be any other outcome--as a quick glance at unfolding events in the Arab world's most secular country, Tunisia, should have made clear. From independence in 1956 until its Jasmine revolution, Tunisia had been the most pro-women's rights country in the history of the Islamic world. Polygamy was outlawed; the veil was banned in government institutions and severely discouraged elsewhere; abortion was made legal on demand; the country initiated the most advanced family-planning campaign the third world had ever seen; and even prostitution was regulated and legalized in the belief that it was the best way to protect the women who worked in the profession.

A year on, the red-light districts have been firebombed and closed, there have been mass demonstrations calling for all women to be veiled, universities have been evacuated because of sit-ins by activists demanding that fully-veiled students be admitted to segregated classes, and unveiled female professors of religion have been hounded off campuses. Meanwhile, the veil is back with a vengeance, with bearded zealots prowling the streets and castigating women refusing to cover themselves for their alleged lack of modesty and respect for Islamist norms.

The question of women's rights cannot be divorced from broader social trends, and in the Arab world that means the coming dominance of political Islam. In Tunisia as in Egypt and Morocco, Islamists have trounced their liberal opponents in elections; in Libya all laws that contravene sharia have been abolished and polygamy has been legalized; and in Yemen the Saudi-backed Islamist party Islah, along with its powerful ally the Hashed tribal confederation, will likewise fill the vacuum after President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally steps down. In Syria, the only secular Arab country left, the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamist militias are waiting in the wings.

As Islamist parties throughout the Arab world, bankrolled by reactionary Persian Gulf monarchies, continue to entrench themselves in the political arenas while Islamizing society from below, the space left for secular-minded, liberal individuals--be they men or women--will become ever-more scarce. We can certainly take for granted that International Women's Day next month will draw even fewer women onto the streets than it did last year, and provoke an even more intolerant reaction from the bigots where it actually is observed.-Published 12/1/2012 bitterlemons-international.org


John R. Bradley is the author of "Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution" (2008) and, most recently, "After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts" (2012).


Reality check
 Abigail Fielding-Smith

For anyone following the waves of unrest that swept the Middle East at the beginning of last year, it was impossible not to notice the fact that some of the frontline's bravest and most determined figures were women.

From Yemen's formidable Nobel prize winner Tawakol Karman, who has faced multiple death threats, to the softly-spoken but indefatigable human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh in Damascus to Ayat al-Qarmezi, the 20-year-old student arrested for reading out a subversive poem in Bahrain's Pearl roundabout, to the thousands in Tahrir square, women have played a high-profile role in the "Arab spring". This has led to talk of a "gender revolution" accompanying the political revolutions in the Middle East.

Now, one year on, this seems more like an aspiration than a reflection of reality, with women scarcely represented in the transitional bodies of Egypt and Libya. The Arab spring's women, like everyone else who took part in it, are finding that bravery on the frontline does not automatically convert into concrete political gains or even necessarily protect their current position in societies.

It is wrong to assume of course that all women participating in the uprisings want to see far-reaching changes in their position in society or identify themselves and their interests primarily along gender lines. For some women, particularly those still fighting entrenched authoritarian regimes in Bahrain and Syria, the overwhelming challenges of staying alive and out of prison and keeping the democratic movement going have left little time for the development of a feminist agenda.

In Yemen, however, where women were strenuously excluded from the public sphere before the outbreak of anti-regime protests in February, female activists were unable to avoid engaging with gender debates when President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced in April that the mixing of men and women in the capital's protest site was "un-Islamic", implicitly casting aspersions on their honor.

Security forces in post-Mubarak Egypt have used the same kind of discourse to try and deter female protesters from participating in ongoing protests in Tahrir, subjecting arrested women protesters to so-called "virginity tests" and, in images broadcast around the world, beating and stamping on the exposed chest of one woman known now as "blue bra girl".

But as Libyan and Tunisian feminists are finding, even once the old regimes are dismantled, a new set of challenges arises. All kinds of political ideologies, including some highly conservative ones, are now bubbling to the surface. Violence and economic hardship, whose specters haunt the Middle East right now, tend to reinforce traditional gender roles. Across the Arab world, Islamist parties look set to be the main beneficiaries of the dramatic transition.

This does not necessarily mean a setback for women's rights--the Tunisian Ennahda party was careful to stress its respect for them during the elections, and many of those campaigning for greater women's rights in the region do so within the framework of Islam. But combined with the fact that feminism has been tainted by association with the western powers who backed the previous, mostly secular regimes, many of which espoused a kind of "state-sponsored feminism", it leads some, conscious of the chastening example of post-revolutionary Iran, to fear that a political backlash is coming.

There are nonetheless grounds for optimism, in the long term at least, for those seeking more equal gender relations in the region. Especially in countries like Yemen, an important psychological watershed has been passed with the participation of women in demonstrations--Tawakol Karman is now being talked about as a possible president of Yemen. Assuming their countries eventually make it to some form of relatively free elections, women are going to be half the voters. Mobilizing to protest may be a different game altogether than mobilizing for electoral politics, but it is a good start.

Libyan women have expressed determination not to be excluded from the political processes of transition. In a powerful rejection of victim status, Egyptian women mobilized en masse to protest at the beating of the "blue bra girl", and thousands of Yemeni women marched to express their contempt for Saleh's attack on their honor.

But for those who thought in the early, heady days of the Arab spring that there could be "no going back", the past few months have been a reality check on gender issues as for other political aspirations. As the region charts its volatile course into the future, nothing can be taken for granted.-Published 12/1/2012 bitterlemons-international.org


Abigail Fielding-Smith is the Beirut correspondent for the Financial Times.


Arab women, protest and the Arab spring
 Manal A. Jamal

Where are the women? How involved have they been? Will they secure their rights? Are they demanding social change? Are their demands feminist? Will they be represented in parliament? Will they be marginalized after the transition?

These have been reverberating questions since the start of the "Arab spring". For many, the December 20 women's march marked a turning point, as women affirmed their agency. In unison, the headlines read: "Egyptian women march, decry abuse by military," "'Blue bra girl' rallies Egypt's women vs. oppression" and "Egyptian women protest abuse by military".

Despite the sincere, genuine concern for Egyptian (and Arab) women, both the resounding questions pertaining to women and the Arab spring and the response to this women's march risk being premised on misleading assumptions about Arab women and their societies. The first--and perhaps most disconcerting--is that Arab women as agents of change have somehow been absent from shaping the histories of their societies. The second is that there is a direct, linear relationship between women's involvement in democratic transitions and the rights and privileges they will secure thereafter. At this historic moment, it is necessary to wade through these issues with caution. To "ahistoricize" women, their movements, and their roles in these societies, and to address women as somehow tangential to these transitions, both in the Arab world and in democratic transitions the world over, may misconstrue women's political realities in these societies, potentially ushering in disempowering and faulty assistance.

December 20, 2011 did not mark a monumental episode in women's protest in the region. There has been no shortage of such protests in Arab history, though the media have been absent or simply did not care to watch. Palestinian women, for one, have taken to the streets by the thousands for decades; these events have escaped the attention of western mass media. Women's protest movements are not recent phenomena to any part of the Arab world. Many date back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the urban centers of Cairo, Beirut and Damascus.

Egypt's history in particular does not suffer from a dearth of such episodes. As early as 1923, in protest against the proclamation of an Egyptian constitution that limited suffrage to males, Hoda Shaarawi resigned from the Wafd Women's Central Committee to establish the Egyptian Feminist Union with the main objective of fighting for women's suffrage. True, the organization was elitist, and Shaarawi and others refused to open up the organization to women of more humble backgrounds. In protest against the elitism of the EFU, Doria Shafik established the Daughters of the Nile Union in 1944. In 1951, the DNU led a protest of 1,000 women into the parliament demanding female suffrage and disrupting the session for three hours. By 1952, they had established their own paramilitary unit in which women received military training. In 1954, following the evacuation of the British from Egypt, a new constitutional assembly was formed to adopt a new constitution for women. The assembly included no women. In protest, Shafik led a hunger strike, joined by 14 other women. Eventually, women were granted the right to vote. By no means am I advocating that women should set up their own paramilitary units, but rather noting this plentiful, revolutionary history that underpins Arab women's protests today.

Women's involvement in these transitions, moreover, will not necessarily correspond to political gains thereafter. In cases ranging from Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Poland, to East Germany, the extent of women's mobilization during the transition had little impact on their political representation under civilian rule. In fact, despite the importance of women's mobilization under authoritarian rule in cases such as Brazil, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, there was no significant increase in women's political electoral representation in the immediate years after the return to civilian rule.

Similarly, in the Arab world, the relationship between Arab women's rights, their socio-economic status, and regime type has never been straightforward. As a number of scholars have illustrated (writing about Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere), the most significant advances of Arab women's economic and social rights and labor force participation took place under the Arab socialist regimes of the 1950s and 1960s. However, these marked advancements in women's rights, as well as increased female labor participation in formal markets, did not translate to stronger women's movements, greater female political influence or greater democratic openings in most cases. Moreover, the subsequent initial stirrings of political liberalization exercises did not result in greater female political participation; on the contrary, they perfected the state's political manipulation of women to better serve the regimes.

It is critical at this juncture to address women and the Arab spring with this background in mind. Recognition that is "exceptionalizing" and outside of history will quite certainly not advance the cause of Arab women.-Published 12/1/2012 bitterlemons-international.org


Manal A. Jamal is assistant professor of political science at James Madison University in Virginia.




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