An Arab spring for women

n Egyptian woman shows her ink-stained finger as she leaves a polling station in Cairo on March 19, 2011.
Getty Images

The "Arab Spring" has received copious attention in the American media, but one of its crucial elements has been largely overlooked: the striking role of women in the protests sweeping the Arab world. Despite inadequate media coverage of their role, women have been and often remain at the forefront of those protests. 

As a start, women had a significant place in the Tunisian demonstrations that kicked off the Arab Spring, often marching up Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, the capital, with their husbands and children in tow. Then, the spark for the Egyptian uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak out of office was a January 25th demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square called by an impassioned young woman via a video posted on Facebook. In Yemen, columns of veiled women have come out in Sanaa and Taiz to force that country's autocrat from office, while in Syria, facing armed secret police, women have blockaded roads to demonstrate for the release of their husbands and sons from prison.

But with such bold gestures go fears.  As women look to the future, they worry that on the road to new, democratic parliamentary regimes, their rights will be discarded in favor of male constituencies, whether patriarchal liberals or Muslim fundamentalists.  The collective memory of how women were in the forefront of the Algerian revolution for independence from France from 1954 to 1962, only to be relegated to the margins of politics thereafter, still weighs heavily.

Historians will undoubtedly debate the causes of the Arab Spring for decades.  Among them certainly are high rates of unemployment for the educated classes, neoliberal policies of privatization and union-busting, corruption in high places, soaring food and energy prices, economic hardship caused by the shrinking of employment opportunities in the Gulf oil states and Europe (thanks to the 2008 global financial meltdown), and decades of frustration with petty, authoritarian styles of governing.  In their roles as workers and professionals as well as family caregivers, women have suffered directly from all these discontents and more, while watching their children and husbands suffer, too.

In late January, freelance journalist Megan Kearns pointed out the relative inattention American television and most print and Internet media gave to women and, by and large, the absence of images of women protesting in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet women couldn't have been more visible in the big demonstrations of early to mid-January in the streets of Tunis, whether accompanying their husbands and children or forming distinct protest lines of their own -- and given Western ideas of oppressed Arab women, this should in itself have been news. 

Women take to the sreets from Tunisia to Syria

To start with Tunisia, women there have, in fact, been in the vanguard of protest movements and social change since the drive to gain independence from France of the late 1940s. Tunisian women have a relatively high literacy rate (71%), represent more than one-fifth of the country's wage earners, and make up 43% of the nearly half-million members of 18 local unions.  Most of these unionized women work in the education, textile, health, city services, and tourism industries.  The General Union of Tunisian Workers (French acronym: UGTT) had increasingly come into conflict with the country's strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and so its rank and file enthusiastically joined the street protests.  Today, the UGTT continues to pressure the government formed after Ben Ali fled to move forward with genuine reforms.

In all of this, women opinion-leaders played an important part.  To take one example, although like most prominent Tunisians movie star Hend Sabry had been coerced into supporting Ben Ali and his mafia-like in-laws, when the anti-government rallies began she broke with the autocrat, warning him in a Facebook post against ordering his security forces to fire on the protesters.  Later, she admitted to being terrified at making such a public gesture, lest her relatives in Tunis be harmed or she be permanently exiled from her homeland. 

In Egypt, the passionate video blog or "vlog" of Asmaa Mahfouz that called on Egyptians to turn out massively on January 25th in Tahrir Square went viral, playing a significant role in the success of that event.  Mahfouz appealed to Egyptians to honor four young men who, following the example of Mohammed Bouazizi (in an act which sparked the Tunisian uprisings), set themselves afire to protest the Mubarak regime. 

Although the secret police had already dismissed them as "psychopaths," she insisted otherwise, demanding a country where people could live in dignity, not "like animals."  According to estimates, at least 20% of the crowds that thronged Tahrir Square that first week were made up of women, who also turned out in large numbers for protests in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. Leil-Zahra Mortada's celebrated Facebook album of women's participation in the Egyptian revolution gives a sense of just how varied and powerful that turnout was. 

As in Tunisia, Egyptian women make up a little more than one-fifth of wage-earning workers -- and labor has long been a powerful force for change in that country. Before they began to mobilize around the Tahrir Square protests, Egyptian workers had staged over 3,000 strikes since 2004, with women sometimes taking the lead.  During the height of the protests against the rule of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, unionized workers even formed a new, nationwide umbrella trade union.

In Libya, women's protests proved central to the movement of entire cities out of the control of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, as with Dirna in the western part of the country in February.  What makes the prominence of women demonstrators there so remarkable is that city's reputation as a stronghold of Muslim fundamentalism.  The abuse of women, a central issue in countries like Libya, even burst into consciousness when a recent law-school graduate from a middle-class family in Tobruk, Iman al-Obeidi, broke into a government press conference in Tripoli to charge that Gaddafi's troops had detained her at a checkpoint and then raped her.  Her plight provoked women's demonstrations against the regime in the rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Tobruk. 

On April 15th, Yemeni president for life Ali Abdullah Saleh scolded women for "inappropriately" mixing in public with men at the huge demonstrations then being staged in the capital, Sanaa, as well as in the cities of Taiz and Aden. In this way, the issue of women's place in the mass protests against decades of autocracy was, for the first time, explicitly broached by a high political figure -- and the response from women couldn't have been clearer.  They came out in unprecedented numbers throughout the country, and even in the countryside, day after day, accusing the president of "besmirching their honor" by implying that they were behaving brazenly.  (It is a longstanding value in the Arab world to avoid impugning the honor of a chaste woman.)  In other words, they turned his attempt to invoke Arab mores about women's seclusion from the public sphere into a rallying cry against him.

Women of a certain age who lived in the southern part of the country found the president's taunt particularly painful, given that they had grown up in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), ruled by a communist regime that promoted women's rights.  They were not subjected to more conservative norms until Saleh united the PDRY with northern Yemen in 1990.  Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, only about a quarter of Yemeni women can read and write, only 17% have finished high school, and only 5% are wage earners, though most work hard all their lives, many on farms.  Still, in urban areas such as Aden, Taiz or Sanaa, middle and upper middle class women have an important place in the professions and business, or as schoolteachers, and more than a quarter of college students are women. 

Faced with the power of outraged women, Saleh quickly backed off, maintaining that, as a secular Arab nationalist, he believed they should be full participants in the political affairs of the nation.  He had simply been wondering aloud, he claimed, how members of the opposition Islah Party, a fundamentalist Muslim organization, were so willing to allow women to march in the streets against him when they favored women's seclusion on all other occasions.

In Syria as well, on several occasions, women have shown their strength and bravery, turning out in forceful demonstrations -- sometimes without men, but with their children in tow. Near the town of Bayda, for instance, thousands of women shouting "We will not be humiliated!" cut off a coastal road to protest a heavy-handed government policy in which the secret police of President Bashar al-Assad had arrested their demonstrating male relatives. On other occasions, Syrian women have staged all-female marches to demand democracy and changes in regime policy.