Women and Revolution in the Middle East

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On the occasion of International Women’s Day, many commentators and activists voiced their opinions on the status of women in their societies as well as their role in the ongoing regional transformation.

Arab News reports that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal took the opportunity to express his view that Saudi women should be allowed to drive. Even though his argument — “Lifting the ban on women’s driving would be a quick first step to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on millions of foreign workers” — seems geared more toward the alleviation of economic than social concerns, the two are not very different. In Kuwait, according to Kuwait Times, “The National Assembly, in its follow-up session yesterday, submitted a bill to the government stipulating that the employed woman be granted more rights, after it was deliberated and approved in the second reading.”

While not intent on starting any Tunisian-style revolts, Nicole Pope expresses her concerns on Turkey’s Today’s Zaman: “In Turkey, progress on several fronts in recent years, including legislation, is overshadowed by continuing violence against women. It is an egregious issue that should urgently be taken up by the Cabinet….Most countries that have succeeded in narrowing the gender gap have resorted to quotas to boost political participation. The ruling party, unfortunately, remains opposed to positive discrimination, arguing that women need to be chosen on merit alone. But for competition to be fair, female candidates would need a level playing field that Turkey is still far from providing.”

Questions about the status of women in their societies were not only raised in Arab and other Muslim countries. In the Israeli daily Haaretz, Avirama Golan laments, “Feminism is arguably the most successful revolution in contemporary times, but a close examination of the situation for women in Israel in recent years reveals a number of worrisome steps backward….On the one hand, women are subject to draconian laws with regard to marital ties and must face rabbinical courts that are galloping back to the Middle Ages; and on the other hand, they must contend with the oppressive demand for eternal youth (to be obtained through botox injections ) and success in a wild work market filled with hatred toward families in general and specifically toward mothers (as well as fathers ) who are merely trying to remain sane. In short, the Israel of 2011 is not a state for women. Instead of a holiday, could we perhaps just have a little rest?”

Underlining the importance of women for the ongoing uprisings in the region, Naomi Wolf writing for Al Jazeera wastes no time connecting the demands of the protesters for regime change with demands for social change. Batting away Western stereotypes of Muslim women, Wolf asserts that in both Egypt and Tunisia “women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.”

That courage continues to be in display daily on the main public squares, where women continue to make their influence felt. Writing about Syria, Farid Ghadry warns that the next Syrian uprising will “be led by two million young Syrian women unable to find economically independent husbands and forced to embrace celibacy (Ansa’a) because of rampant unemployment and economic deprivation; in our culture, buying a sheltering home, offering one’s bride a token of gold, and providing for your family at least one weekly meal with meat are essential to the stability of our Syrian society.”

In Iran, Fereshteh Ghazi reports in the Iranian Rooz Magazine, “Tehran witnessed another day of heightened security on International Women’s Day. Armed security forces along with plain-clothes and Basij militia took positions on main streets to prevent public gatherings. According to Rooz reporters in Tehran, women police were deployed on the streets for the first time….Mohseni Square, the Amirabad intersection, and the site where Neda Aqasoltan was shot dead during the 2009 presidential election were among the main locations announced by a group that calls itself the Grieving Mothers and other social networks for yesterday’s public protests. But all three locations were blocked to the public by security forces and armed personnel.”

Lebanese women also made their presence felt by gathering in public spaces during the week, against the wishes of Hezbollah. David Miller writes in an Arab News report, “Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, hundreds of Lebanese women defied Hezbollah and demonstrated over the weekend in downtown Beirut in support of an international tribunal investigating the assassination of former premier Rafiq Al-Hariri. The women, all backers of the liberal March 14 Movement led by caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain premier, formed a human chain Sunday stretching from Hariri’s grave to the spot where his car exploded in February 2005, killing him and 22 others.”

Even though in Iraq the presence of women was conspicuously missing, one female protester made her voice heard calling for the eradication of women’s illiteracy. Aswat Aliraq reports, “Hundreds of men staged a demonstration in al-Nasseriya city on Friday to call for better services and living conditions amidst the absence of any women save only one, who called for eradicating women’s illiteracy and providing jobs for them….Hussein al-Ghozzi, a member of the Organization to Defend Iraqi Families’ Rights, told Aswat al-Iraq that there was no single placard among the numerous placards that called for women’s or children’s rights, although women are more [numerous] than men in Nasseriya community, according to official statistics.”

It is perhaps fitting that it is in Egypt where some of the most consequential debates are taking place. Fatma Naib has prepared an in-depth report for Al Jazeeragiving voice to “Egyptian women [as they] describe the spirit of Tahrir and their hope that the equality they found there will live on….Egyptian women, just like men, took up the call to ‘hope.’ Here they describe the spirit of Tahrir – the camaraderie and equality they experienced — and their hope that the model of democracy established there will be carried forward as Egyptians shape a new political and social landscape.”

Ongoing instability in the country and efforts to reverse some of the gains of the last month by counterrevolutionary forces has meant that the heroes of Tahir Square still have an uphill battle. An AP report published on Asharq Alawsat notes, “A protest by hundreds of Egyptian women demanding equal rights and an end to sexual harassment turned violent Tuesday when crowds of men heckled and shoved the demonstrators, telling them to go home where they belong. The women — some in headscarves and flowing robes, others in jeans — had marched to Cairo’s central Tahrir Square to celebrate International Women’s Day. But crowds of men soon outnumbered them and chased them out.”

However, as Dalia Mogahed opines also on Asharq Alawsat, “To lead the region Egypt needs its women….Egypt has a historical opportunity to build on the momentum of its revolution and lead the region in social progress. This means that the country’s courageous women will have a seat at the table in Egypt’s decision-making circles just as they stood steadfast in its Tahrir square….The role of women in this historical reinvention of Egyptian society cannot be overstated….In fact, many credit the revolution’s beginnings to Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman who started the April 6th youth movement that organized the protests. In the online video that began a revolution, she implored other Egyptians to come out on January 25th to stand up for their dignity. Mahfouz appealed to her male counterparts’ chivalry. If it was dangerous for a young woman to go out and protest, she passionately argued, then they should come out and protect her.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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