Women have never acted as mere spectators to history, but far too often revolutionary change has shoved them aside, improving conditions for men, and leaving them — even those who fought in the revolutions — abandoned by the wayside. Not this time, at least not if a new wave of internet savvy women have their way.
Women have taken leading roles in many of the democratic uprisings in the Middle East, spearheading calls for democracy in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Even success could not push away the indignities of misogyny. The regime that took power after Egypt's Mubarak was toppled decided to conduct “virginity tests” on the women who had stood shoulder to shoulder with men in Tahrir Square demanding freedom for their country. The new government explained this outrage saying that decent (meaning virginal) women would not have spent their nights in a public square.
It turns out overthrowing a dictator doesn't change a country's attitudes.
Now women are grabbing their laptops and their smartphones, taking to social networking sites and putting their own concerns at the top of the agenda. Women the world over are launching the new 21st century wave of the Women's Movement, organizing to demand long-overdue change.
In Saudi Arabia, 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif just spent nine days in prison for doing something that is only illegal when women do it, and is only illegal in one country in the entire world: driving a car. Sharif, an Internet consultant, says she couldn't find a taxi one night as she tried to get home to her young son. Men on the road heaped abuse on her as she desperately sought a way home. She reached the end of her rope.
She later drove a car and posted a video of herself doing it, fully clad in head-to-toe black abaya, on YouTube.
Violating the religious fatwa against driving landed her in jail but it also enraged Saudi women who had complained about a rule that not only insults them, but also creates enormous practical problems.
Game on: a Facebook group called Women2Drive designated June 17 as the day to take to the wheel and challenge the rule. The road ahead will not be easy. Another Facebook group promptly emerged, with members promising to beat women who drive.
The Saudi king long ago promised to do away with the ban. Now, with the Arab world in turmoil, demands for the right to drive seem minuscule compared with calls to overthrow regimes. In fact, women in Saudi Arabia have much more to complain about.
The kingdom's gender apartheid rules, falsely ascribed to Islamic law, are really an instrument of control and subjugation. What could be more offensive than the Saudi male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain permission from a male guardian, a husband, brother, father or son, in order to travel or study or make any major decision. Human Rights Watch says it turns adult women into “perpetual minors.” Women in the West could hardly conceive of living under such rules.
There's worse, of course. Much worse. Women in the Middle East and North Africa routinely suffer the brutalities of female genital mutilation, honor killings, and other horrors. The fight to bring an end to these practices is not new, but it could gain new momentum if other organizing efforts for change succeed.
The need for a major attitude adjustment is not limited to the Middle East. Earlier this year, someone heard a police officer in Toronto declare that if women don't want to be raped, they “should avoid dressing like sluts.” The comment triggered the creation of SlutWalk, another worldwide internet phenomenon. In April, the group, encouraging women to dress any way they wished, held the first march in Toronto. Since then, Facebook pages for SlutWalks around the world have popped up, and dozens of walks have already happened around the globe, from Sao Paulo to Australia. There are more marches planned in New Delhi, Auckland, Dublin and elsewhere.
The image of everyday people demanding change has the power to penetrate the minds of those who thought they had to no choice but to endure indignities. Hotel maids have decided they don't have to allow powerful men to attack them. Women in a desert kingdom say they've waited long enough for the simple right to drive. With the Internet powering a wave of uprisings, women are saying this time they will not let the revolution leave them behind.