Arab Spring, public diplomacy, Women

Was the Arab Awakening a Spring Without Flowers?

In celebration of International Women’s Day, the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center has released an interesting report, “Reflections on Women in the Arab Spring.” The report consists of short commentaries from women who were key participants and observers of the various protests that have swept the MENA region over the last year.

Many of those contributing to the report are pessimistic about the future for women in many of these societies, and a mood of bitterness and even betrayal underlies a lot of their observations. Some of this, to be sure, reflects the same feelings that many of the protesters in places like Egypt have expressed as they’ve seen their own power usurped by conservative political parties and even old foes like the Army. Last April I conducted some journalism training at the American University in Cairo right next to Tahrir Square, and already this pessimism was palpable in the conversations I had with students, faculty, and even those still gathering in the square.

But as the report makes clear, there are unique concerns among many women, and their male supporters, that the new political systems in these countries are not an improvement, and in some cases could even create a worse environment for women than existed under the old dictatorships.

This is all the more distressing given the powerful role many women played in these revolutions, and, for many, the sense of empowerment the protests gave to these women. As Moushira Khattab, a former Egyptian Ambassador to several countries and former Minister of Family and Population, says in the report:

Women rallied around the cause of pushing the train of political change. One year later,
Egyptian women find that the train of change has not only left them behind, but has in fact
turned against them. It is ironic that the revolution that empowered a country, and made every
Egyptian realize the power of their voice, stopped short of women’s rights. Sadly, the only
march that was kicked out of Tahrir Square was that of women celebrating 2011 International
Women’s Day. Women were beaten, subjected to virginity tests, and stripped of their clothes in
the very same Tahrir Square.

An important underlying theme of the report, from both an academic and a social movement perspective, is that political processes and political parties are ultimately more important for securing rights and freedoms than revolutions. Many of those quoted in the report lament the failure to live up to the promise of female representation in legislative bodies, and the frightening way in which these male- and often conservatively-dominated legislatures are trying to roll back the rights of women by, for example, legalizing polygamy or trying to reinstate female genital mutilation.

This isn’t just about Islamism, either. As Rend Al-Rahim, Executive Director of the Iraq Foundation, points out:

A similar retreat in the civil and human rights of women may well occur, as constitutions are
written and laws are passed. It’s not an issue of Islam. Though the Salafist trend denies rights
for women, the Muslim Brotherhood, less extreme and more numerous, fielded women
candidates for parliament in Egypt (and before that in Iraq). The retreat in women’s rights has
more to do with the resurgence of patriarchal, narrowly conservative, social mores embedded
in ancient tribal customs than with religion. Shari’a is only a convenient peg for the deeper
instinct of male dominance.

Successful social movements, particularly revolutionary ones, have always faced difficulties as they transition from protest to political process, in large part because the latter doesn’t reward idealism and non-hierarchical structures. The problem is, process is where real change occurs, or where it gets squashed. For women in the MENA region, and elsewhere, there are worrying signs, but there are also hopeful ones. To end on a more positive note, here is a cautiously optimistic forecast from Farzaneh Milani of the University of Virgina:

The massive participation of throngs of women, walking shoulder to
shoulder and side by side with men, is a turning point in the contemporary history of the
region. It is indeed a revolution within revolutions. Although there will be many challenges
ahead, particularly for those women who have transgressed all conventional boundaries and
traditional spaces, the genie is out of the bottle.

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About Sean Aday

Sean Aday is an associate professor of media and international affairs at George Washington University. He is also the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and director of the Global Communication M.A. Program. His research interests include: media and foreign policy/war, new media and politics, public diplomacy, media effects, and public opinion.

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