RESOURCE: Women and the Arab Spring (Part 1)

Thursday, October 6, 2011
Lowy Interpreter
Northern Africa
Western Asia

I promised to write a series of posts on women and the Arab Spring and this is the first, dealing with the role of women in the protest movements themselves.

The greatest difficulty in writing about women and the Arab Spring is to understand the degree to which they have been moving forces behind the protests. Cultural and political forces have dictated that they are not well represented in the leadership that will govern in those countries where the old political order was removed. But women have not been silent in the events leading up to it.

In many ways, the movements themselves were, if not leaderless, then at least relatively amorphous groups that lacked a centralized leadership. This, and the fact that the Arab Awakening/Spring was largely a story about the mobilization of youth, meant that women have had more of an opportunity to have their voices heard. Traditional Arab leadership is a male affair, but for a brief moment the combined effects of social media and youthful optimism have given women a prominence in the Arab uprisings that they haven't had in the past.

Rumours swirling around the Nobel peace prize nominations have it that two Arab women are strongly in the running for the award: the Tunisian blogger Lina BenMhenni and Israa Abdel Fattah, the Egyptian internet activist whose political activism pre-dates the Arab Spring.

While the freedom of women to congregate and take political action as equals on the streets in countries like Tunisia is merely an extension of the social freedoms they have taken as granted for years, it is their mobilisation in more conservative states such as Bahrain and Yemen that has been the more remarkable. The question for the future is whether, having let the female political emancipation genie out of the bottle, post-Arab Spring leaders will be willing (or able) to put it back in.

It is also worth adding a note of caution about the true role of Arab women in the current uprisings, and not the one ascribed to them by the Western media. The controversy surrounding the 'Gay Girl in Damascus' blog hoax suggested some in the West want the Arab Spring to be as much about social emancipation as about political freedom. Does anyone think a 'Straight Boy in Damascus' blog featuring the same claims of political repression would have elicited much interest?

The Arab Spring is not about women, nor is it about men. If anything, it is about youth, and one of the hopes that large parts of that Arab youth of today have is that the future will be one that is more socially and politically inclusive of women. Whether the future of the Arab Spring is shaped by those same people who took part in the demonstrations will determine the degree to which that future becomes a reality.

In future posts I will look at the issue of women and the Arab Spring from a number of angles, including what role women have played in the aftermath of regime removal, what has happened to the old regimes' high profile women and whether we should expect any longer-term changes to the political role of women in the Arab world as a result of the last 12 months' agitation.