Women in the Arab Uprisings

“Women’s participation during the revolution was remarkable.”


Women in the Arab Uprisings[*]

Egyptian activist Shaza Abdel Lateef speaks against a backdrop of severe lack of women’s rights- no opening independent bank accounts, voting or driving, in Saudi Arabia, to daily police harassment in Egypt. There has been a wide range of experiences in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, but what cuts across the revolts is that women have been central, and are proud of their mobilization.

In the Streets

Women in Tahrir Square were of all ages and social groups resisting poverty, brutality, corruption. They led marches and participated in human shields, in spite of sexist gender roles relegating women to be protected, kept home, and not participate in public, political, activity. This is why Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian feminist and former political prisoner, stresses that women and girls, like men and boys, are in the streets calling for justice, freedom, equality and democracy.

As a whole, protests led by many women-based labor unions in the manufacturing cities of Egypt played a key role in catalyzing the Egyptian revolution. Benghazi fell, says Najla el Manghoush, because “both men and women, educated and not, were being humiliated. Now we are all rebuilding it together."

The arrest of Tawakul Karman an outspoken critic in Yemen is said to have set off of major street demonstrations threatening President Saleh’s regime. As a journalist and human rights activist, Tawakul has long been “a thorn in Ali Abdullah Saleh's side.” Speaking out against censorship, alienated youth, unemployment, and land evictions, she leads weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners from jail – a place she has been several times herself. "This revolution is inevitable, the people have endured dictatorship, corruption, poverty and unemployment for years and now the whole thing is exploding," she says. She argues that women should not wait for permission before demanding their rights: "If you go to the protests now, you will see something you never saw before: hundreds of women. They shout and sing, they even sleep there in tents. This is not just a political revolution, it's a social revolution."

Mobilizing & Organizing

But women have not just contributed to the numbers of bodies filling public squares in protest across the region. At the hub of pro-democracy Libyan operations in Benghazi, Salwa Bugaighis has been central since the first protests which quickly escalated to calls for regime change: “We had no idea we would get rid of Qaddafi in just a few days and we were left with nothing, no institutions at all. We had to quickly work out how to organize everything for ourselves.” She has been running logistical operations and acting as a liaison between the street, talking to young people on the street, relaying their messages to transitional council's members, meeting with the military committee to discuss how to prepare Benghazi against an attack, and fielding calls about arriving food shipments.

Salwa is one of a group of women said to be at the vanguard of the uprising, together with her sister Iman Bugaighis, a professor-turned-spokeswoman for the rebels, Salwa el Deghali, the women's representative on the council, and Hanaa Al-Gallal, a member of the council’s media committee. For 42 years women in Libya have basically not been able to say what they want. Now attempting to fill a governmental void in Benghazi, there is hope: “we have no political experience, but I think we are doing a great job," says Iman.

Women have taken lead roles in spreading the word and convincing people to join the uprising. In Tunisia, human rights leader and blogger Lina Ben Mehenni ignored police threats in her organizing work to spread word about upcoming protests.

Public debate about why join, has not been gender neutral. Asmaa Mahfouz’s blog mobilized tens of thousands of Egyptians: “I am a woman and I am going out on Jan 25 and am not afraid of the police. For the men who brag of their toughness, why exactly are you not joining us to go out and demonstrate… If you stay home, you deserve what will happen to you... if each of us manages to bring 5 or 10 people to Tahrir Square…talk to people and tell them, this is enough!”

Mahfouz has been called “The Girl Who Crushed Mubarak” and “A Woman worth 100 Men.” Her gender is pointed out in her praise because in order to participate, women have had to fight not only the regime, but within their families and organizations in order to be taken seriously: “My family was so worried about me and they told me women are not harsh enough for that kind of confrontation…They now tell me they are so proud of me. I knew that if I get scared and everybody gets scared, then this country will be lost for good.”

Women have been inspired to project their voices into public debate in traditional media outlets as well. Suzanne Himmi, 35, says she has found her voice and her way of helping the revolution in Libya. The former housewife and mother of five came out to protest on the first days because "my father-in-law died in prison and many more of my relatives have been hurt by Qaddafi". Living close to action in Benghazi, she was witness to everything that was happening. "I decided to write it down and collect people's stories," she says. Now she writes daily for the newspaper Libya, one of the new media outlets to pop up in Benghazi. "It is important that people know what is going on so they are not scared," says Himmi.

Two Saudi campaigns have been inspired by the powerful contributions of women to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. The “Baladi” or “My Country” campaign is fighting for women to be allowed to vote in this year’s municipal elections, only the second nationwide ballot that the absolute monarchy has allowed. History lecturer and human rights activist Hatoon al-Fassi is involved in campaigning for women's participation in elections: “We have decided to create municipal councils paralleling the men-only municipal elections…We will never give up,” said Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi.

Another campaign, “Saudi Women’s Revolution,” is pressing for equal treatment and international solidarity. Alia al-Faqih, 19, said the revolts inspired her to join the facebook group of 2000 women demanding change in Saudi Arabia. “The protesters in Egypt and Tunisia did something that was almost impossible... If they could bring down two tough presidents, why can’t we demand our rights?”

In Political Debates

Outspoken women are engaging in a range of intellectual debates about oppression and democracy. Women are fighting on Egyptian TV, exposing contradictions in U.S. geopolitics and the gendered impacts of dictatorship and imperialism.

When asked, often women in the region often explain their views on the uprisings and actions in gendered terms because these revolts are taking place against the backdrop of severe gendered repression and violence used to keep international capitalist patriarchies going. These effects have been well documented by many organizations such as Nazra for Feminist Studies, Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, and the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement. Their oppression has been used as an excuse for US backed military intervention, occupation, and bloodshed, justified in terms of promoting democracy and women’s rights to “protect” Muslim women, but the daily violence of hunger and poverty felt most acutely by women, is never criticized. They are spoken about and spoken for. In her protest rap song, “Back Down Mubarak,” Master Mimz message that Arab women can set their own priorities is loud and clear: “First give me a job—then lets talk about my hijab.

Mona Eltawahy, Egyptian feminist, argues that Muslim women are not the “burka barbies” they are to be in the western media: silent and passive next to their stereotyped angry and dangerous male counterparts. She asserts that they can indeed think for themselves but face layers of opposition speaking out as Islamic feminists.

Speaking of daily/local, national, and international dimensions of patriarchy, Nehad Abu el Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, explains that she lives in a society that tolerates violence against women, often violates their rights out of an effort to “protect” them, and often blames sexual harassment on the victims, so legislative change isn’t the only obstacle. Egypt’s revolution encouraged women to speak out, she says. But women will need to continue to fight to ensure their place as Egypt moves forward.

At 80, Nawal El Saadawi, hosts monthly meetings for youth, many of whom like Kareem Amer, have been imprisoned for their activism. Situating the challenge for women within the larger politics and power dynamics of globalization, Saadawi argues the revolts mark a revolutionary turn because people are challenging not just Mubarak, but a system causing corruption, oppression of women, and unemployment. People are rejecting American and Israeli domination, which she says is part of “the whole Mubarak system…and the patriarchal capitalist system.” Imperialism has created a ruling business class at the expense of 80 million Egyptians, and fundamentalisms, she argues, have attempted “to divide socialist and feminist visionaries for decades.”

Challenging state violence, says leading human rights activist Aida Seif Al Dawla, involves confronting U.S. imperial relations with the Mubarak regime. Dawla works with

the El Nadeem Center For Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Like Sadaawi, she stresses that the uprising is not just a conflict between Egypt state and citizens, but a conflict in global perspective. Egyptian women’s rights, “like the rights of all Egyptians are entangled in the global, imperial relation between the US, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and other repressive regimes of the region and beyond. Only when we can take these local and imperial forces seriously can we begin to understand the oppression millions of Egyptian people are determined to end.”

In Facing Violence

Women have not been spared from attacks for uprising. Women in Saudi say they are minors except when facing criminal charges- then they are equal. Protestors across the region have made similar comments, that the police and the military are gender only when it comes to punishment. In protesting in Egypt, Amira was killed by a police officer; Liza Mohamed Hasan was hit by a police car; Sally Zahran was hit by a Mubarak thug in the back of the head with a bat- she went home to sleep and never woke up.

Often there is a gendered dimension to the assaults. Prof. Noha Radwan was beaten by Mubarak’s men- they didn’t just bash her head in, but ripped her shirt open. Salwa El-Hosseiny, for example, had joined protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square when a plainclothes officer grabbed her and dragged her to army officers stationed in a nearby museum. With 20 other women, she was sent to a military prison and beaten, electrocuted and verbally abused. They were stripped, and a male doctor performed “virginity checks” all the while being filmed and threatened with charges of prostitution.

Dr. Amal Abdel Hadi, head of the New Women Foundation, says “Egyptian police and security forces have a long and troubling history of violating the sanctity of women's bodies to intimidate people….It's not unusual for police or security officers to detain a woman and force her to strip naked because her husband has been caught stealing or is a terrorist suspect." She says sexual humiliation is a disturbing yet effective form of psychological torture and pubic control.

Most of the female detainees were tried in a military court on March 11th 2011 and released two days later. Several received one-year suspended prison sentences for disorderly conduct, destroying public property, obstructing traffic, and carrying weapons. The torture and humiliation of these women was intended to "send a strong message" to the community that dissent would not be tolerated, says Dr. Mona Hamed, a psychologist at El Nadim Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

These dynamics were taken into consideration in organizing special spaces for women to feel free to protest in Benghazi, said Rosanna Ramadan. "Women want to have their voice heard so we have a special area to make sure everyone is comfortable enough to come out." Since the demonstrations pushed police out, several women comment: “It's the first time that I have never been harassed in Cairo.” The protests in Benghazi too have broken down barriers. Girls say they are allowed out late and are working together with men. Ramadan: "I think this will transform the lot for women afterwards when all of Libya is free."

The Road Ahead

There is a sense of celebration, defiance, and determination, as well as anxiety of what the future holds.

Women have joined in protest and action to bring down dictatorships across the region for a range of reasons- some because their husbands and sons have been killed, some have joined specifically to keep women in the struggle. Their organizing is not new. Female voices rang out loud and clear during massive protests that brought down the authoritarian rule of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Irgui Najet, a 36 year old lawyer argued that "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." “We believe that we have a right to rebuild Egypt,” said Fatima Mansour.

Consolidating coalitions that supports women’s organizing and that seek to dismantle patriarchy will not be easy. Tawakul Karman: "The extremist people hate me. They speak about me in the mosques and pass round leaflets condemning me as un-Islamic. They say I'm trying to take women away from their houses.” For different reasons, some women and some youth oppose her politics too. She argues that protestors and youth need political parties and parties need the youth, “neither will succeed in overthrowing this regime without the other.” But finding a party that represents her politics in entirety, is a challenge. Karman is a member of Yemen’s leading Islamic opposition party, the Islah. She says on the one hand it was the best party in Yemen for supporting female members, but on the other, she was chastised last October when she condemned ultra-conservative party members for blocking a bill that would make it illegal to marry girls under the age of 17.

In uprising there was “real equality and we’ll never go back to square one,” Magda Adly. “They can’t just send us home after the revolution, we are half the population. If we stay silent, we will continue to experience all the discrimination of the past,” Shaza Abdel Lateef argued. On International Women’s Day this March 8th, after the of Mubarak, women organized a protest in Tahrir Square against the fact that the interim military council ruling Egypt failed to appoint even one women to the committee drafting constitutional amendments. “We fought side by side with men during the revolution, and now we’re not represented,” said Passat Rabie after some men dispersed their protest, saying women have enough rights, their acts are against Islam, and they should go home and wash clothes. “We need to change social and cultural concepts about what women's role is to begin with. That is one of the biggest battles,” says Yasmine Khalifa, an organizer of the protest. “This is a long process… a continuation of the revolution.”

Re-imagining society through struggle has created a sense of pride and potential that needs to be defended as the base for the next steps moving forward. What would it mean for women to protect the revolution- the spirit of millions of people together in a square demanding justice, freedom, democracy in spite of class, gender, race, age, religion- what will it take? Tariq Ali argues that in part these uprisings are in response to market fundamentalism. We know this has specific implications for women. “The Arab revolutions triggered by the economic crisis, have mobilized mass movements, but not every aspect of life has been called into question,” says Ali. South Africa’s democracy has been criticized for giving women rights but not redistributing wealth, leaving the majority of the poor black and female. It is therefore important not just to celebrate women’s courageous roles in these uprisings, but to look at grievances and campaigns of women in the region before these uprisings, as a measure/yardstick to keep in the forefront of our questions as the transitions to democracy take place there. Dismantling patriarchy needs to be at the center of restructuring and women’s organizations and feminist solidarities must remain vigilant in the struggle for human liberation.

Koni Benson, ILRIG Researcher Educator, April 2011.


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[*] This is an article that cuts and pastes the best of what I could find on the range of roles of women in the Arab Uprisings. It was written with the aim of informing activists in South Africa what women in these revolutions have been doing and thinking, with the aim of a follow up piece on the prospects for women as dictators topple and they are faced with the next task of social restructuring.


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