Where women led in 2019

In mass protests in five Muslim countries, many of the demonstrators were not only women but also the leaders. This social breakthrough in equality helps lay a path for full democracy.

Iraqi women take part in anti-government protests in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 2.

One of the remarkable stories of 2019 has been a string of protests in Muslim countries. In Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Algeria, the top leaders have had to resign. In Iran, the ruling mullahs had to kill hundreds of demonstrators just to stay in power. None of these countries has yet to achieve most of the reforms demanded by the protesters. Yet the uprisings did bring one breakthrough: In all the protests, women not only participated in unprecedented numbers; they often led the crowds.

In Sudan, it was a young student, Alaa Salah, who inspired thousands while singing a popular protest song atop a vehicle. In Lebanon, women led peace marches that changed the character of the protests and helped curb the violence. In Algeria, a retired judge and civic activist, Zoubida Assoul, was one of many women who led months of protests. In Iran, a state-run news publication admitted that the organizing role of women during the protests was “impressive.”

In many cases, these women had to break social taboos. For some, it was mixing in public with men. For others, it was throwing off a head covering or ignoring the warnings of danger from their families. By being leaders themselves, these women no longer deferred to men. They definitely rejected the notion of being second-class citizens.

“We have traditions, unfortunately, that slightly held people back,” one protester in Iraq told The National newspaper. “But now, women in all the provinces have gone out. Even if a woman doesn’t go out, you see her standing at her door carrying the Iraqi flag. This is the first time that has happened.”

Even if these protests ultimately fail in their political goals, these women have shattered a mental ceiling, not only for themselves but perhaps for others who have been marginalized in their largely Muslim societies.

By being on the front lines, women shaped the nature and direction of the protests. More people felt comfortable to join them, especially by seeing female leadership on social media. Security forces were perhaps less reluctant to resort to violence. And because of the courage of the women and their numbers, top leaders may have felt more pressure to resign.

In Islamic countries outside the Middle East and North Africa, women have been elected as national leaders (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh). In the Arab world as well as in Iran, perhaps a window has opened in 2019 that could lead to women being democratic leaders.

For the women leading the protests and the ones following them, that equality already exists. They first had to find it within themselves.

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