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.
Arab women have been crucial midwives in the revolutions that have shattered the status quo in the Middle East.Skip to next paragraph
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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?
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.)