Has the Arab Spring Been Beneficial for Women?

Meg Munn MP & Nicole Cleminshaw
March 19, 2013

The Arab Spring began on 18th December 2010 when a young, jobless Tunisian graduate was selling vegetables from a cart. After his wares were consistently seized by the police, he set himself on fire in protest. This act sparked demonstrations and protests across Tunisia, which led to the toppling of the 23 year reign of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The wave of protest quickly spread across North Africa and the Middle East, with pro-democratic rebellions that toppled regimes and left many Arab citizens with increased civil rights.

Women were essential

Women were essential to helping maintain the movement. In Yemen, it was a young woman who first led demonstrations on her university campus against the long rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Bahrain, women were some of the first to pour into Pearl Square in the capital city demanding change, often carrying their children with them. In Cairo, women were involved in arranging food deliveries, blankets and medical help which allowed a moment to turn into a movement.

Even in the more conservative regimes of the region women reacted against their leadership’s actions. Hundreds of Syrian women marched through the town of Beida to protest the detention of their men. When Yemini President Saleh announced that it was un-Islamic for men and women to march side by side in protest, thousands of women flooded the streets just to prove him wrong.

Women continue to support the demonstrations by working as nurses in makeshift hospitals, cooking food for protesters, and giving speeches and singing songs at demonstrations. Their support has been vital in sustaining the Arab Spring. However, the movement itself does not rest upon gender equality. Women of all countries involved agree on that. It is about regime change to bring freedoms to people of genders, all religions and race.

Above all, it is about the freedom to express oneself. In addition to the right to freedom psychologically, socially, and economically, the demonstrators call for the ability to speak their minds and simply be themselves.

Even though the movement is about the rights of everyone, women make up a substantial proportion of the Arab Spring countries. In Tunisia, for example, it was the grievances of the young, well educated and unemployed people that sparked the revolution. Two-thirds of that population is made up of Tunisian women.

Women in Arab nations like men face problems in terms of lack of opportunities and employment options. But it is worse because while more and more Muslim women are attending university, they have even fewer opportunities than their male colleagues to speak or to secure a job. It is only natural then for them to question the nature of the system in their country. This frustration can be seen by the level of support women have contributed to the movement.

Will only men benefit?

The question remains as to whether the Arab Spring has benefited women. After all their hard work and support, many women fear that only the men will gain the freedoms for which both genders fought. Many women report that while the men were happy for the women’s support during the revolution, some men feel that now it’s time for women to go back home to their “normal lives.” It is alarming that women’s efforts are at risk of being unrewarded and that men who welcomed their support on the street may not welcome their presence in business or government.

Additionally, rape and sexual assault are being used as weapons against women. Assault and harassment were problems before the revolutions, but heightened levels of such violence has led many to believe that they are being used as a way to silence women and keep them indoors.  Ultra-conservative Islamists have blamed women who are sexually assaulted at demonstrations by saying the harassment was their fault for mixing inappropriately with men.

There have also been high profile accounts of female journalists being attacked and sexually assaulted during protests. These stories include that of Natasha Smith, a young British journalism student who went to Egypt to cover women’s rights for her final project. She was separated from her two male companions by dozens of frenzied men who dragged her across the ground as they ripped off her skirt, undergarments, shoes and shirt. She was ultimately saved from the continued assault by a different group of Egyptian men.

Cases like these are appalling in and of themselves, however what is even more shocking is that law enforcement has been unwilling to challenge this wave of sexual violence. Indeed, when law suits have been filed against perpetrators of sexual assault the victims themselves have been targeted. A lawyer from Benghazi named Iman Al-Obaidi told journalists that she was raped by security forces in March 2011; she was then accused of defamation against the Qadaffi government. She was subsequently arrested by security police, forced into a car, and detained for several days.

The detentions have often brought sexual discomfort. In 2011, Samira Ibrahim and Maha Mohamed brought a case to the Egyptian courts challenging the legality of forced virginity tests of female protesters. In the face of increased sexual violence towards women, both Samira and Maha won their cases.

Driven into traditional roles?

Despite Samira and Maha’s landmark cases, women express their concern of being driven into more traditional roles due to increasing violence and the militarisation of the economy. At the same time, many of the Arab Spring nations have been experiencing the rise of “political Islam.”  These are Islamic parties such as Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party or Tunisia’s formerly outlawed Islamic Ennanhda party. Ennanhda has since dropped the Islamic portion of its name but its core values remain the same. Both of these parties recently secured over 40% of the available seats in their respective countries.  

The rise of these Islamic parties has multiple causes. In addition to the religious backing they have, under previous regimes Islamic organisations have been able to provide charities, social services, jobs and business opportunities to the population establishing a network of support across the country.

However, it is not only male conservatives that support the Islamic parties. While proportionally more men indicated in a 2012 Gallup poll that they think Sharia should be the only source of law, proportionally more women indicated that it should be a source, but not the source.

Nevertheless, the effects of the increase in Islamic party power have had a disproportionate effect on women. Salafist students, who support a strict interpretation of Islam, have called for gender separation in their courses and for women to be fully covered when attending university. Worryingly, the second demand has met little resistance from university administrators.

Once considered the most liberal of the Middle Eastern countries, Tunisia has seen a sharp rise in the number of women wearing veils. All the while, campaigns promote Islamic parties as a platform for change even though some of these groups look to implement a purist interpretation of Islam that would call for secular laws to be rolled back. And with the rise of these parties, in some instances women have less representation in government than before the revolutions.

Women’s representation in government

Many of the newer Arab democracies have employed electoral quota laws to try and increase women’s representation in government. The effectiveness of quota systems is however under debate.

Tunisia, for example, has implemented a “zipping” system where every other candidate on an electoral list must be female. Egypt issued a decree abolishing a quota requiring 64 of 518 seats be filled by women and instead requires all electoral lists to include at least one women. There are concerns with both systems. In Egypt, few women are nominated and are often placed at the bottom of the list. Women in Tunisia fear that the regulations won’t be enforced if officials claim that there aren’t enough qualified women to run. This, they assert, is a farce because even in the most rural regions there are female doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

The performance of electoral lists seems to be disappointing as only 2 women are currently in cabinet positions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, all countries that maintain quotas. Yet are these results better than not having a provision at all? In Tunisia 4 of 6 constitutional draft committees were headed by women but in Egypt, the number of women parliamentarians has dropped from 12% to 2%. The international average is around 21%.

Gaining a sense of empowerment

However, despite the hardships women have endured as a result of the Arab Spring, there have been distinct benefits as well. Women activists in Arab Spring countries most notably point to the sense of empowerment that women have found by fighting for their rights. The experience they have obtained pushing for collective, national goals has been invaluable. They cannot be legislated away or removed from an individual’s memory. This experience of coming together to be agents of positive change has become a seed that will grow into greater demands for women’s rights. Women have learned that they have to fight for their freedoms and that these freedoms are worth fighting for.

In fact, this mobilisation is working. Last November, the Egyptian government dropped the controversial Article 68 which had affirmed the government’s commitment to gender equality as long as it didn’t interfere with the rulings of Sharia. Now, there will be equality for all citizens, regardless of gender, race, or religion. Similarly in Tunisia, the draft constitution guarantees non-discrimination on any grounds, including gender.

However, there is still work to be done and that work is being done by very dedicated women in the Arab Spring nations. Protests continue over the implementation of Tunisia’s Article 28 which describes women’s roles in the family as “complementary” to those of men’s. After women’s positive experience mobilising for their rights, women will not accept the definition of their roles in relation to those of a man. Women must be defined in their own right.

Furthermore, mobilisation has continued at the grassroots level. Anti-harassment backlash in Egypt has been undertaken in a variety of forms. In addition to self-defence courses, there have been marches in Cairo against sexual harassment. These women are responding to ultra- conservative Islamists who say women invite sexual assault by attending anti-government demonstrations where they mix with men. As recently as early February, an Egyptian lawmaker remarked that women are sometimes fully responsible for rape because they put themselves into that situation. In response, women brandish knives at the rallies and threaten to cut off the hands of attackers.

However, there are also creative reactions that don’t respond to violence with violence. An app called Harassmap now sends text alerts to women regarding “danger zones” where harassment or assaults have been reported.

 There has also been a push to make sure that all voices, including women, are being included in the conversations about constitutions, law, and the role of religion. In Tunisia, Amira Yahyaoui founded Al Bawsla, an organisation that helps people understand the role politics plays in their lives and how to work together to protect their rights. Likewise, as in Tunisia, Alaa Murabit is publishing a Libyan Women’s Charter that has been produced in consultation with women across Libya. It will lay out the specific needs and demands of Libyan women which will then be used to influence the writing of the new constitution.

Ultimately, the women of the Arab Spring nations have faced hardship. They have endured continuing sexual abuse and have fought to maintain their rights in the face of powerful conservative Islamic parties. Despite these difficulties, the Arab Spring has provided an opportunity for women to participate politically by toppling regimes and to fight for the issues that affect them. While, the quantifiable results of this fight have been disappointing thus far, it is up to the women of these nations to push against traditionalist forces that look to diminish their rights. The revolution won’t truly be over until there are rights for everyone, not just the men of the Arab Spring nations.


Photo by Valpovic