'We have found our voice and it feels good'
The determination of ordinary women paved the way for revolution across the Middle East. But the promise of the Arab revolutions will be fulfilled only when the women who helped to liberate their nations achieve liberation for themselves
SHERINE DESCRIBES what happened to her last year as something akin to waking up from a deep slumber. The bubbly Cairo university student never had much interest in politics. “My life centred around my studies and my friends. I thought politics was not for me,” she says. “Most people I knew felt the same.”
But in spring last year, everything changed. Sherine and her friends joined the anti-regime protests that began in the Egyptian capital’s Tahrir Square before fanning throughout the country and eventually leading to the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak. “We, the people of Egypt, can never go back to dictatorship,” a defiant Sherine told me as we sat in a cafe close to Tahrir Square two months later. “We have woken up. We have lost our fear.”
One of the most striking aspects of the wave of revolutions and uprisings that has swept the Middle East and north Africa over the past 20 months, dislodging dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, is the mobilisation of ordinary women such as Sherine who had no previous history of political involvement.
From the earliest days of what became known as the Arab Spring, women have been at the forefront of protest – marching, chanting, braving tear gas and sometimes gunfire at rallies; fundraising and running social-media campaigns; treating those wounded by government forces bent on quashing the revolts; and even going on hunger strike, as Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaja did last year to highlight the detention and beating of her father, a prominent opposition figure.
In Libya, the effort to oust Col Muammar Gadafy, who had ruled with an iron fist for 42 years, propelled women in one of north Africa’s most conservative societies into roles they never imagined. The spark for Libya’s uprising was provided by a group of women whose male relatives were among 1,200 inmates killed by security forces in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre. The women, from elderly grandmothers to young daughters, refused to back down on their demand for justice. Their determination paved the way for revolution.
I METLibyan women who smuggled bullets in their handbags or ran guns for rebel fighters. “We didn’t fight on the frontline but we wanted to contribute in whatever way we could,” one Tripoli woman told me.
In Syria recently, I met women who opened up their homes as safe houses for rebel fighters and who spoke proudly of sons, husbands and brothers who had died in the bloodiest chapter of the Arab Spring. Women activists such as Razan Ghazzawi, awarded the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders annual human-rights prize this year, have been detained by Syrian security forces. Others, such as human-rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, have been forced into hiding after attempting to highlight abuses by the Syrian regime as it tries to quell the revolt against it. Fadwa Suleiman, a prominent Syrian actress, was ostracised by her family, which, like president Bashar al-Assad, belongs to the Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam, after she addressed anti-regime rallies in the besieged city of Homs.
The women who have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands across the Arab world span the range of female experience in the region: from those in headscarves or religiously conservative dress, including full-face veils, to young women in jeans and make-up, their heads uncovered.
“We have found our voice and it feels good,” one middle-aged Egyptian woman told me on Tahrir Square weeks after Mubarak resigned. “There is a sense that anything is possible.”
Activist Tawakkol Karman, who was instrumental in organising the protests in Yemen that eventually led to president Ali Abdullah Saleh agreeing to relinquish power last winter, paid tribute to her Arab sisters in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in December. Karman, the first Arab woman to be awarded the prize, praised those who struggle “to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men”.
Almost two years after those first heady months of revolution, however, many women in the region complain that overthrowing autocrats is proving easier than overturning the deep-rooted patriarchal norms that threaten to snuff out their new-found sense of liberation. Women activists are beginning to realise how difficult it will be to transform their engagement in the revolutions into longer-term economic, political, and social gains.
As Karman put it in June: “The most important thing the Arab Spring brought us was [that it gave] women leadership roles. When women become leaders of men, and men are following, when women sacrifice themselves and get killed in front of men, when they get detained for political issues and men don’t feel ashamed of women who are arrested, this is a change. But is it enough to change the situation of women? The answer is: not yet.”