Women of the Arab Spring: Their issues are everyone’s issues

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By Natana Delong-Bas

BOSTON, Massachusetts: The capture and killing of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, on-going demonstrations for an end to the oppressive reigns of Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, and new elections in Tunisia show that one thing has not changed in the Arab Spring — change itself. Even in Saudi Arabia, where requests for reform have not called for regime change, change is proving inevitable with the death of Crown Prince Sultan and questions about what direction the soon-to-be-named new crown prince may take the country.

Much of the world’s attention has focused not only on political changes in these countries — but also what these changes mean for the region’s women.

My friend and colleague, Egyptian cultural anthropologist Yasmin Moll, and I were recently talking about our frustration with this method of framing the issues as it seems to suggest that the meaning of these changes for women is somehow different from the meaning for men, that women are a sideshow to the main male event, and that revolutions are inherently male-driven and male-dominated with women left to play, at best, supporting roles.

Focusing on “women’s rights” and “women’s issues” suggests that women are a separate social category, unrelated to national issues. When issues are defined as pertaining only to women, many men conclude that they have no reason to be concerned about them and that they have nothing to contribute or gain.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that “women’s issues” are everyone’s issues. Women are not a minority. Women constitute half of the population. As such, women’s rights and responsibilities are not minor issues, but national ones. How women are treated in the eyes of the state and the law is a matter of citizenship, not womanhood. Assuring that women are included as citizens requires the support and activism of male public figures.

Analysis of the various revolutions shows that women have played important roles as leaders and organizers, as well as demonstrators and providers of technical and logistical support:

Egyptian non-governmental organizations estimate that 40 percent of the protesters at Tahrir Square were women.

In Yemen, Tawakkul Karman’s years of peaceful calls for an end to Saleh’s regime won her the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Libya’s revolution was initiated by a group of women lawyers.

Syrian women began the demonstrations against Al-Assad by organizing sit-ins on highways.

Saudi women earned their right to vote, run for office and become full members of the Shura Council by proving their worth as professionals, employees, students and activists, as well as wives and mothers.

The powerful examples of the women of the Arab Spring should be viewed not as an abnormal or exceptional event, but rather as a normal and acceptable way for women from all walks of life to appear and participate in public space, addressing issues of national concern. Secularists and political Islamic activists, veiled and unveiled, conservatives and liberals, and professionals and housewives alike have taken to the streets, proving that the issues are not limited to a single group, ideology or outlook.

Limiting women’s achievement and access to the corridors of power and decision-making not only deprives the nation of the voices of half of its citizenry, but limits everyone’s vision of what the nation should look like and how it should function.

If there is one clear message from the Arab Spring, it is this — the people, both women and men, are no longer willing to be passive. They are active agents for change who know their rights and are unafraid to demand, work and even die for them. They will hopefully continue to stand together as new governments are brought into power. Anything less robs the country of the voices and agents who created it.

Yasmin and I both hope that the media will give proper attention to the powerful role women have played — and continue to play — not only in revolutions, but also in the hard work of state construction that lies ahead. We need to continue to see women as agents of change and participants in running the country so that we can continue to believe that both are possible and desirable.

Dr. Natana J. DeLong-Bas is Editor-in-Chief of The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Women and author of Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. She teaches comparative theology at Boston College. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.

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