Arab women: this time, the revolution won't leave us behind

Arab women were integral players in the post-colonial revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, but soon lost ground. They are vowing not to be marginalized in the wake of this year's Arab spring.

By , Staff writer

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    Palestinian women take part in a protest marking International Women's Day in front of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, against Israel's occupation of land it captured during the 1967 Middle East War, on March 8.
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Arab women have been crucial midwives in the revolutions that have shattered the status quo in the Middle East.

A first voice of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was the sister of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man who immolated himself and set off the protests. In Mr. Bouazizi’s town of Sidi Bouzid, “Of all those who spoke to the media, the most forceful was his sister [Leila], who strongly advocated political equality,” says Khadija Cherif, former president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Woman, speaking from Tunis.

Yet the extent of Arab female participation may be less important than the question: Were democracy revolutions possible without the women?

Recommended: Islam, politics, and women's rights: the view from the post-revolution Muslim world

Women’s networks, courage, voices, and activity so directly influenced the Arab spring that any new democracy failing to include them has some explaining to do. Men and women marched side by side in January and February. After 50 years of work, as senior Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi put it, “In [Tahrir Square] I felt for the first time that women are equal to men.”

Stereotypes of Arab women

Today is International Women’s Day; it marks for the 100th year female advances in education, law, human rights, and commerce. But unforeseen ahead of today's celebrations was so sudden a rise in the profile of Arab women. As Naomi Wolf, author of "The Beauty Myth," notes, Arab women are often seen as either exotic belly dancers or covered head to toe in black veils – but rarely as the girl next door.

In fact, Arab women were early and integral parts of the post-colonial revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria that led to independence. But they were soon marginalized. Today, as doctors, lawyers, teachers, women don’t want a repeat.

In Tunisia, “women massively participated in the [Jasmine] uprising to make sure their demands would be taken into account, that they would get to be represented in post-revolutionary political institution,” says Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights and herself a Tunisian. “Women strongly resent the fact that though they participated in the nationalist struggle against colonialism, they were largely forgotten once independence was obtained.”

The Arab spring may be captured in the saying that decades pass and nothing happens, then in weeks decades happen. The role of Arab women can’t be hidden – though a panel of legal experts in Egypt appointed by the military to revise the constitution is already being criticized for excluding them. (The wording of one proposal states that an Egyptian president may not be married to a “non-Egyptian women,” implying that a woman cannot be president.)

“We see [Arab] women committed to human rights and democracy in a way that is extraordinary. They put on the table a coalition that no one expected was there and that is extremely strong,” says Harvard Divinity School’s Leila Ahmed, author of “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, From the Middle East to America.” This is a challenge to the old impression that Arab women are passive and submissive … that idea is being completely overturned.”

It's all about education, literacy

Globally, women rise to prominence wherever they have access to education and literacy. In China, women proverbially hold up half the sky. In Hong Kong, female lawyers prop up half of the democracy movement. In India’s elite prep schools, where girls are as numerous as boys, they outshine the other gender in subjects from math to language. US studies show females are now more than 70 percent of US high school valedictorians. Men have fallen to 40 percent of the US college student body.

Literacy and schooling in Northern Europe and Great Britain brought early pioneer social reform and women’s rights through churches and in urban society. In 19th century America, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “The mother has more authority.” In the Arab world, many women’s rights on divorce, inheritance, and civil participation came about in roughly the same period as in southern Europe, including France.

Yet even a superficial look at the condition of women, including in the Arab world, shows deep problems: sexual violence, bias, inequality, gaping chasms between what law promises females and what courts and authorities will grant, even in progressive nations. Sublimated violence against women is the leitmotif of “Millennium,” the popular Swedish crime trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

Yet the gradual rise of women may be, quietly, one of the most important long-term changes on the globe.

In the Arab world, demographics are a key driver. French scholars Immanuel Todd and Youssef Courbage, challenging Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” find the Arab birth rate in steep decline, from roughly seven offspring to two. Along with spiking the idea of an Arab cultural exception and showing a move to modernity, they point out that there are simply more Arab families with girls. A broadening Arab middle class with fewer sons means females get more and better education, particularly in Tunisia, where schooling was state policy dating to Habib Bourguiba, the father of independence.

Leila Bouazizi, who spoke courageously on behalf of her brother after he set himself alight, is a benefactor of that policy. She spoke to the BBC saying, "My brother is alive in all of us. He offered us so much; he opened many doors for us because we can smell democracy and freedom now.”

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