Women of the Arab Spring

When I worked as a news editor in Beirut, I once had to pick a picture to illustrate a piece on Yemenis’ desperation at Friday’s prayer, after former President Abdullah Saleh refused to step down in February 2011.

I was torn between one image featuring a crowd of women clothed in abayas, weeping as they kneel down in awe and raise their hands to implore the Lord’s mercy at the mosque.

The other picture focused on one man who was shedding a few tears in a blurred background of people.

When I asked a fellow Lebanese journalist for advise, he immediately suggested that I select the second image because, he contended, Arab women are extremely emotional and it has become a common thing to see them cry. On the other hand, the sight of an Arab male weeping is more powerful.

Though my colleague’s comment meant no harm and was underlining a predominant cultural feature amongst Arab females, it disturbed me somehow.

Hence, for a woman in particular, witnessing the Muslim world change right in front of your eyes, is deeply inspiring as it debunks the stereotypical image of the subservient Arab female but also of the apathetic Arab nation under the yoke of dictatorship.

During the Arab Spring, women have repudiated their traditional status in patriarchal societies and faced tear gas in their struggle for freedom. They came under the spotlight when Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Across North Africa and the Middle East, protesters have rewritten the history of the past century. The same way Chinese have imposed themselves on the international stage after a century of humiliation, Arabs have gained prominence worldwide as they proved that they were a highly politicized people.

What has impressed me is the fact the civil society has achieved what political leaders failed to do: unite. Arabs have overcome, for some time, their many differences to join forces against oppressive rulers.

While I was shouldering past the mob of Egyptians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in March 2011, I was able to feel the galvanic atmosphere. I could not help but pause for a moment and appreciate the sense of unity amongst people coming from different walks of life, and shouting the same slogans. For once, I saw Arab women and men, young and older, traditional and liberal, beggars and bourgeois part of the same group, expressing their patriotism through dissent.

For decades, the socio-economic gap in the region has been deepening and creating an ideological chasm between Arabs themselves. As the upheavals were unfolding, I could hear French and American-educated (understand upper-class) Moroccans, Tunisians and Jordanians express their fear of a takeover by the scorned ‘shaab’ (the people in Arabic).

For instance, I recall discussing the developments of the Jasmine Revolution with a Tunisian young professional working in finance in Paris in September 2011. Sadly enough, she assured me that no one was starving in Tunis, which, she insisted, carried on as a burgeoning entertainment hub in the region.

Furthermore, what fascinated me as I covered the Arab revolutions was the range of intense emotions people expressed. I deeply felt Egyptians’ ire and abhorrence of the Old Guard’s regime. Coverage of Libyans burning Gadhafi’s green book emphasized their unshakable commitment to revolt.

Despite crackdowns by Assad’s military forces, Syrians have been impressively steadfast and fearless. They have ingeniously sought financial and technical support through various means in neighboring Lebanon where bloggers and activists found a haven.

As for Moroccans, they have been the most idealist protestors. When I participated in the February 20 movement (opposing the government) demonstrations in the suburb of Sidi Maarouf, at the outskirts of Casablanca a few weeks before the November 2011 electoral turning point, I was impressed by their enthusiasm.

Most of them acknowledged the ‘Moroccan exception’, as they described it, and asserted that Morocco is different than the Arab countries that were shaken by uprisings. As protestors were shouting, “they [the king and government officials] live in palaces and we dig graves”, I sensed that these people were deeply fearful of chaos. Thus, they carefully formulated their demands and ensured not to mention any overthrow of the regime.

However, despite Arabs’ unity in their cause, women have clearly not earned the same status as men in protests. I find deplorable the instances of sexual assaults to crush women or just harass them, such as CBS correspondent Lara Logan’s public rape by Egyptians.

I can honestly say that I could have had troubles in Tahrir Square if I was not walking around with a male friend. I even had to slap an Egyptian demonstrator after he touched me inappropriately, as I was standing amongst the crowd. Clearly, it is taking time for Arab men to get accustomed to a preponderant public role for women.

 Unexpectedly, disappointment followed the thrill.

What started as a pro-democracy and secular movement that called for justice and freedom, triggered Islamic electoral landslides in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, probably in Libya, in a region where Islamic parties garnered significant votes in Iran in 1979, in Algeria in 1991, in the Gaza Strip in 2006, in Lebanon with a Hezbollah-led government in 2011, not to mention the Arabic Peninsula.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring’s young initiators have had no clear political structure, hence enabling better organized Islamist factions to fill the vacuum.

When I attended a weekly brainstorming gathering of Morocco’s February 20 movement at the headquarters of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in Casablanca, I grasped the protestors’ frustration. These students and young professionals were genuinely willing to reform their country but clearly lacked the skills to do so. Indeed, how could one expect a university student of economics or an employee in the marketing field to know how to organize nationwide sit-ins?

For example, there was not any coordination between demonstrators in different Moroccan cities, though they were often communicating on social media and blogs. In addition, official media denied these people existence by refusing to cover the protests.

Such factors contributed to allowing Islamists to channel people’s resentment and gain momentum. I actually saw many of them distributing tracts in the streets during protests to encourage citizens to vote for an Islamic party, arguing that it provides an effective platform for reform.

Moreover, these religious groups have found legitimacy thanks to their political virginity, after Arab governments muzzled them for years.

In a coffee place across Tahrir Square in Cairo, I discussed with a local journalist the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s streets. As he put it, the Brotherhood did not want to be identified with the protestors, at the start of the uprising. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Youth Committee I talked to later on confirmed this. Yet, after the demonstrators did the ‘dirty job’ of formulating clear demands and organizing protests across the country, Islamists progressively infiltrated the scene.

 Ultimately, the crucial challenge that lies ahead is to ensure that what pro-democracy movements started throughout the Arab world about a year ago does not lead, ironically, to thwarting democracy. This requires a clear separation between Islam and politics in order to promote democracy and ensure that women’s rights are fully respected.

For my part, I am wary of the outcome of Islamic electoral victories.

Let us remember that the reason why Arab women suffer from discriminatory legislation such as “guardianship laws” and have the status of minors across the Muslim world is, first and foremost, because of the application of Islamic laws – the Sharia. Hence, I do not see how the rise of Islamist parties to power will, in any ways, improve Arab women’s fate or foster democracy.

After being somehow on a pedestal during the Arab Spring, women might receive far less public attention, especially in Egypt where hardliner Salafists, who aim at implementing a purist interpretation of Islam and overturn secular laws, won 20% of the second-round vote. For instance, the committee to redraft Egypt’s new constitution after Mubarak’s ouster excluded women, even female legal experts.

In Tunisia, which pioneered a 1956 law granting women full equality with men in terms of marriage, divorce and child custody, En-Nahda organized sit-ins in rural areas where, for the first time since 1956, women were separated from men.

In Morocco, the supposedly moderate Justice and Development Party (PJD), which won the November 2011 elections, has preached for more ‘morality’ in public life but assured its constituents that it will not impose veils on women, ban alcohol or undermine tourism.

Nevertheless, I wish that the PJD Secretary general Abdelilah Benkirane was able to clearly formulate a position regarding women’s role in politics and society, during a gathering I attended in Rabat, about a month before the elections.

My main concern is that Islamist parties that were denied political existence for decades open a Pandora box, begetting a radicalization of Islam.

When I talked to Tunisian expatriates in France, they all agreed that the number of veiled women has sharply increased in Tunisia’s streets since Ben Ali was toppled. Similarly in Morocco, one can sense a further islamization of the society. As an example, shops close for longer hours on Fridays so that people can go to the mosque. During the holy month of Ramadan, more stores shut down and Moroccans work fewer hours.

In any case, it is a pity that, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in the Maghreb, “purity” and “morality” were favored over secularism and women’s emancipation.

This article was published in Daily News & Analysis (DNA) in Mumbai, India on December 28, 2011.

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