MIDDLE EAST: Revolution Far From Over For Women of Arab Spring

Sunday, September 23, 2012
Al Monitor
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

Egyptians have finally spoken out regarding the attacks by Salafist Islamist preacher Abdullah Badr against female Egyptian artists. He described them as "adulteresses" and "morally deficient," saying that these artists supported “obscenity" and "things that did not please God and the Prophet." The issue even reached Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who met with a delegation of TV and movie stars a few days ago. It seems that he was forced to salvage the situation by declaring his solidarity with them.


In the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions, along with the political changes that accompanied them, it has become clear that the struggle for women's rights is far from over. Rasha al-Atrash reports on the challenges facing women in these post-dictatorial states.

Currently, the Facebook pages of Tunisian citizens abound with posts using the word "dégage" — French for "leave" — which is the same term that rained down upon ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at the beginning of last year. However, this time, the word is being directed at the government headed by Ennahda, whose mandate will end on Oct. 23. Yet, observers have noted that the government can continue to hold power as long as the National Constituent Assembly has not finished writing a new constitution. In a statement, the opposition expressed their irritation at approaches taken by the government, which they considered to represent the "Islamification" of both the state and the lifestyle of its people. This is especially true given the latest product of Ennahda's “imagination" — which will likely not be its last — relating to the implementation of a system of "parallel religious education" under the supervision of Zitouna University.

Prior to this incident, news of Libyan television presenter Sarah al-Messalati (who was expelled from an official power transfer ceremony for not wearing a headscarf) circulated on Facebook. This incident attracted many comments from those who sympathized with her, calling for greater freedoms and women's rights. However, there were also those who found the incident reprehensible. In their opinion, the Arab Spring had brought political Islam movements out of their hiding places and into the public spotlight, with many such movements obtaining power. They believe that if Islamists are successful in implementing Islamic law, it will set culture back "by many years."

More and more, these feelings of unease are no longer merely marginal discourse.

"This is the Arab Spring…," wrote one commenter on the social networking site, in response to the news of Messalati being thrown out of the ceremony marking the transfer of power to the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli. This expulsion was ordered by NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil. He addressed the attendees at the opening of the ceremony, and improvised an introduction to his previously written speech. He stated: “We believe in individual freedoms, but at the same time we are Muslims and hold our values dear to heart. Everyone must understand this point."

This incident involving Messalati coincided with news of the arrest of Majdouline Zakri, the head of the Libyan Haqqi Association, following her participation in a workshop held in Benghazi. She was charged with "working with a Jewish organization," although later her association was accused of "entering the country under a permit to remove land mines, however it deviated from its primary goals and began calling for women's rights and criticizing Libya's Mufti, Shiekh Sadiq al-Ghariani." She was subsequently released, due to a "lack of evidence." The activist later confirmed through her Facebook page that the Haqqi Association — which advocates for women's rights — was registered with the Libyan Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, she said that her visit to Benghazi was at the invitation of a Danish humanitarian organization, and added that the Libyan government had given her permission to work with 23 other Libyan associations and organizations. They were working together to "enable 20 women to serve on the committee of 60 that would be responsible for drafting the constitution."

The iceberg

Sarah and Majdouline's cases drew the attention of many, especially following the recent Libyan elections, where Islamists did not make the same gains that they did in Tunisia and Egypt. Some have warned that this was just the tip of the iceberg, with the expectation that "much more was yet to come."

It is as though the Arab revolutions have been tarnished, more and more each day, with feelings of animosity towards modern women. This is true regardless of the "identity" that the state has taken on following the overthrow of a tyrant. Both before these incidents and after them, there were many similar stories emerging from countries that witnessed revolutions. Some of these incidents were even worse and more oppressive than what happened to these two women.

Azza el-Garf — also known as Um Ayman — is a member of the Egyptian People's Assembly who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. She has become a polarizing figure on Facebook, where many have insulted her and made fun of her, while others adore her "halo of piety." She had made very strange statements for a woman in her position. She has defended female genital mutilation, claiming that it is a form of "protection" for girls. She also demanded the abolition of laws that punish those who commit sexual harassment, because — in her opinion — a woman's “nakedness" is the reason for this harassment. Thus, "there is nothing wrong with the men!" Currently, Garf is involved in a legislative campaign aimed at changing the family status law. This does not bode well based on what she has previously done. Thus, in the eyes of young revolutionaries — who have seen their revolutions taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists �— Garf has become a frightening symbol of the rise of the Brotherhood and the "Brotherhoodization" of the state and its laws. Here is a woman whose rhetoric repeatedly goes against members of her own sex, and this could undermine the achievements that women activists have made over many decades.

In the wake of these revolutions, it is as if feminist issues no longer have to do with building a state that welcomes the participation of women and supports their individual freedoms on the basis of citizenship. These also are not related to military rule, a despotic ruler or a corrupt first lady. Rather, these issues are now focused on preserving previous achievements, and the dream of expanding upon them. Yes, this dream is something shared by all rational Arab men and women.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, previously reticent feelings of apprehension regarding this chain of uprisings have been reinforced. People are concerned about these revolutions, whether they are peaceful or armed, completed or ongoing. Many of these fears were once attributed only to those who had benefited from fallen rulers. These people believed that if they raised their voices, they would be overshadowed by the excitement concerning impending freedom and the miracles of democracy and true modernity, which finally seemed possible following a long period of despair. However, these concerns are no longer kept hidden. These concerns have even affected those — who until very recently — considered these doubts to be manifestations of unjustified Islamophobia. They backed up their views by referencing the Facebook profiles of the youth of the revolution, and the fact that all of these groups — including Islamists, liberals, leftists, nationalists and traditionalists — joined hands in protest. However, these calls are no longer unified, they have become angry and upset, even scared. Thus, in the best scenario, there are calling for the completion of a revolution that they believe is just getting started.
In the same context, there were two large protests in Tunisia on Aug. 13, the same day that the family status law was issued in 1956, during the reign of late Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba. This law granted Tunisian women many rights that were unprecedented in the Arab world. It forbade men from taking more than one wife, and also outlawed unofficial marriages. Moreover, it prevented guardians from coercing girls to marry, and did away with conceptions of male guardianship. The law made divorce a matter of the judiciary, where previously a man could divorce his wife whenever he pleased. On this basis, the protesters came out to oppose Ennahda's efforts to add an article to the new constitution that considers women to be "complementary to men," as opposed to being equal in terms of rights and duties.

Are these the actual effects of the Arab Spring? Or have these revolutions merely released what was always present but repressed? Is it possible that tyranny and corruption secured the rights of women yet deprived citizens of their freedoms at the same time? Are Arabs naturally inclined to oppress women and deprive them of their rights, as long as they are working towards liberation from dictatorial regimes? Is this issue one of gender or politics, of religion or culture? Which aspects of this issue are fundamental? And which are acquired?

Because they hate them

These questions bring to mind the controversy that was sparked by an article written in English by Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy, titled "Why do they hate us?" This article was published in Foreign Policy magazine in June 2012. This controversy serves as a framework in which we can think about answers to these questions, even if we don't discover the ultimate "truth."
Eltahawy's article centered on one idea: Arab men hate women. "They don't hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliche had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us." Eltahawy gave examples of hatred toward women, such as female genital mutilation in Egypt, among others. She argues against the assumption that women have no need for sexual satisfaction, or that they naturally lack self restraint, and thus without female genital mutilation they will do whatever they please. She highlights laws that "tolerate" men beating their wives, so long as it is done in "good faith," as well as the rampant sexual harassment in Yemen, Morocco and Egypt. She cites a report on "gender gap" — issued by the World Economic Forum — and notes that not a single Arab country is ranked in the top 100 of the 135 countries included in the list (of those that have narrowed that gap). Eltahawy also rejects what has been said — particularly in the West — regarding the "cultural" or "religious" roots of these problems. If we consider Mohamed Bouazizi — the Tunisian fruit vendor who set him self on fire — to be the first spark of the Arab Spring, then Amina al-Filani — a Moroccan teenager who drank poison in protest of being forced to marry her rapist — and Samira Ibrahim — who was the first woman to file a lawsuit against those who subjected Egyptian activists to "virginity tests" — are Bouazizi's female counterparts. In summary, until very recently, "being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been."

In contrast, there was a blog response written by a woman who only identified herself as Sarah. Her problems with Eltahawy's article began with the title: the use of the words "they" and "we" simplified the issue, and she used an emotional argument to say that Arab men hate women. The truth of the matter is that patriarchy is a universal disease, that comes in many different forms and is not limited to Arabic or Islamic culture. The feminist battle against patriarchy often involves fighting against elements of repressive systems (such as absolute convictions, capitalism, etc.) and not against individual men. There are women who adopt patriarchal views, just like there are men who do not discriminate against women. Moreover, many Arab women have fought their entire lives to expose those who oppress both women and men alike. Women are upset by the fact that many turn to the West — with its ideas of "normalcy" — as though they are asking to be rescued. Eltahawy might be correct regarding some of her points. The consequences of the rise of Islamic parties to power is evidenced — more and more — in its effects on women's bodies and their personal and public lives. These are manifestations that are visible, tangible and lived, as opposed to talk of economic, political or managerial theories. However, at the same time Sarah was correct to accuse Eltahawy of simplifying and generalizing the issue. As she noted, patriarchy is something that plagues both men and women, since it harms the human condition and the concept of citizenship.

Talk of the binary of men and women — or men hating women — is useless. Just as is talk of the repressive Eastern cliche — or should we say disgrace — and complex related to a fear of "airing dirty laundry" in front of "foreigners." This talk only serves to cover up the main idea: that patriarchy is something that affects the entire world — for example, we have yet to see a female US president — and gender issues affect both the West and the East, even if they are more prominent in the East. However, it is also true that more advanced societies have installed a legislative and constitutional system that protects freedoms, rights and duties. This system ensures equality between men and women, and anyone who is subjected to discrimination can refer back to this system. This is not to mention that, in the West, there is always room for public discourse and debate on these issues. This is contrary to what is the case in the vast majority of Arab societies, where governing institutions themselves — both before and after the Arab Spring — support a patriarchal system. Perhaps the best example of this is the domestic violence law in Lebanon. Despite Lebanon being a role model in the region for in terms of its liberalness and sectarian pluralism — both in society and in the ruling system — the aforementioned law is never enforced.