The Arab Spring and Women’s Continued Mobilization in the Region

By Anne PriceHelen RizzoChelsea MartyKatherine Meyer

What does the Arab Spring uprisings’ effect on women in the MENA region tell us about the broader outcomes of the Arab Spring? In this piece, we discuss: 1) women’s status as a key indicator of the potential for democracy in the region, 2) changes in women’s status since the Arab Spring, and 3) the ways in which women’s increased mobilization as a result of the Arab Spring has been—and can continue to be—a pathway to improvements in women’s status. We give particular attention to the case of Egypt.

The last two decades have established that women’s status and democracy are closely linked. Organizations that rank countries according to their degree of democracy include women’s social standing, including their access to education, employment and politics; their reproductive rights; and their rights within the family, as key measures. So, while the Arab Spring was not a gender-based phenomenon, those who hoped to see evidence of turns towards democracy in the MENA region searched for improvements in women’s status as an indicator of the success of the uprisings (link 1). In the first waves of protest, particularly the gathering in Tahrir Square, women participated alongside men, suggesting that this might be an opening for women to gain greater rights in the civil and political realm. However, when women protestors were subjected to “virginity tests” and other violence by the military and crowds, it was at best unclear how the Arab Spring was impacting MENA women.

It was evident that women protestors were using social media as a way to more safely navigate their participation in the movement, but the importance of this to achieving social change was likely overblown. In the media; terms like “facebook revolution” were sometimes used to emphasize the supposed centrality of social media to the political struggles in the region. In the intervening years, researchers have downplayed the importance of social media in the uprisings, viewing it as another tool for mobilizing and protesting, rather than as a truly new type of engagement. Country experts pointed out that neither women’s political action nor their use of communication technologies was new, and “For the past decade at least, MENA women activists have used the Internet, social networking sites, and satellite TV to spread their message, recruit supporters, and draw international attention to their cause.” (link 2).

In light of the harassment that women faced as they protested publically, and the fact that women’s use of social media for protest was not a breakthrough that greatly increased their political power, looking at women’s status since the Arab Spring is overall a distressing picture. In March 2016, the Wilson Center Middle East Program published a reflection on the effects of the Arab Spring for women in the MENA region by a panel of country experts (link 3). The writers provided country-specific assessments on the effects of the Arab Spring for women’s rights, but generally viewed the region as thrown into a “miasma of pandemonium and civil unrest” (Fahmia Al-Fotih, Yemen). In the worst cases, women have been subjected to injustices common to women in times of war, including displacement, abuses, rape, and poverty.

In other countries that have resumed some stability, women have seen themselves left out of the state building process, such as in Egypt. One of the major setbacks women have faced in Egypt since 2011 has been their isolation from the formal, political decision making process. In the first post-Mubarak parliament, and following the cancellation of the women’s quota law, women’s representation was a mere 1.5% (link 4), while out of an 85-member constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s 2012 constitution, only seven percent were women (link 5). In the one year period under President Mohamed Morsi (member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Political Party) 2012-2013, the Islamist dominated parliament threatened women’s status with discussions of changing the following laws: lowering the legal age for marriage, repealing the 2000 reforms to the personal status law that made it easier for women to end their marriages, lowering the maternal custody age to 7 for boys and 10 for girls, and easing restrictions on female genital mutilation (FGM). Officials in Morsi’s government also downplayed gender based violence and their response to mob sexual assaults and rapes at protests was to blame the victims by saying that they took the risk of being violently attacked by participating in risky and dangerous protests.

However, one positive aspect that does seem to have come out the Arab Spring is increased mobilization among women in civil society. In Egypt, the response to parliamentary threats to reverse decades of progress in women’s rights was strong opposition by various women’s rights organizations and activists. These efforts influenced the new constitution of 2014, which was drafted by the Committee of Fifty after Morsi was removed from power in July 2013. The Committee of Fifty was more representative than the previous constitution-drafting committee. While the Committee of Fifty only had five women (10 percent of the members), those women were highly vocal and influential leaders in Egyptian society. As a result, the current constitution was the most progressive constitution in Egyptian history with respect to women’s rights (link 6). Moreover, as Asef Bayat (link 7) noted in 2015, because of women’s participation in the 2011 uprising: “Women’s extraordinary public presence threatened patriarchal sensibilities, and their public harassment produced one of the most genuine movements in the nation’s recent history.” Partly because of this grassroots pressure against harassment and partly in response to a video widely circulated on social media exposing how a ‘blonde girl’ was openly assaulted by a mob at Cairo University in June 2014 (link 8), interim President Adly Mansour issued a decree to criminalize sexual harassment for the first time (link 9).

In 2015, Asef Bayat (link 7) spoke on the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings broadly, but his words work perfectly to describe women’s status in the region: “revolutions are never calm and clean episodes of transformation; they are marred by inherent paradoxes that make strife and unrest the enduring features of their history. The great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg goes so far as to suggest that revolution is the only form of “war” in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats.” MENA women have faced defeats in the past six years, but they have also been able to successfully mobilize to achieve some important successes.

 

Links

  1. Arshad, Shazia. 2014. The Arab Spring: What Did it Do for Women? The Middle East Monitor

URL: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20140124-the-arab-spring-what-did-it-do-for-women/

  1. Gheytanchi, Elham and Valentine Moghadam. 2014. “Women, Social Protests, and the New Media Activism in the Middle East and North Africa.” International Review of Modern Sociology 40(1).

URL: http://www.serialsjournals.com/serialjournalmanager/pdf/1430475753.pdf

  1. Wilson Center Middle East Program. Five Years After the Arab Spring: What’s Next for Women in the MENA Region?”

URL: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/five-years-after-the-arab-spring-whats-next-for-women-the-mena-region

  1. Hatem, Mervat. 2013. The Arab Spring: Youth and gender in the debate on gender and revolution. Turkish Review, 1 March.

URL: http://www.turkishreview.org/aksiyon/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=223288.

  1. Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. 2013. 10% is women’s share in the 50-member committee for amending the constitution. 2 September.

URL: http://ecwronline.org/blog/2013/09/02/0-is-womens-share-in-the-50-member-committee-for-amending-the-constitution/.

6.    Kato, Mira. 2017. “Women of Egypt.” The Cairo Review of Global Affairs (Winter).

URL: https://www.thecairoreview.com/essays/women-of-egypt/

  1. Bayat, Asef. 2015. Revolution and despair. Mada Masr, 25 January 25.

URL: http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/revolution-and-despair.

  1. Thornhill, Ted. 2014. What happened when a blonde woman in a sexy pink top walks through a Cairo university campus? Viral video captures crowds of baying men swarming around female. The Daily Mail, 25 March.

URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2589105/Shocking-reaction-blonde-woman-caught-video-crowds-men-swarm-walks-Cairo-university-campus.html.

  1. Kingsley, Patrick. 2014. Egypt criminalises sexual harassment for the first time. The Guardian, 6 June.

URL: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/06/egypt-criminalises-sexual-harassment.

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