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The Women of Arab Spring
Contributor
Written by
State of the Art
January 2012
Contributor
Written by
State of the Art
January 2012

Sarah Glazer wonders what will happen to the women of Arab Spring after the revolution is over.

Are we getting the whole story about the part women are playing in the Arab Spring turmoil and its aftermath? That was the question in my mind as I headed for a panel discussion in London last month with women activists from Libya, Bahrain and Iran.

The first thing that struck me was the eye-catching pink head scarf worn by Mervat Mhani, a mother of two and leading protestor in Libya’s revolution—right away a clue that hiding your hair doesn’t necessarily mean hiding your thoughts or your daring.

But most striking were the stories these women told of being shot at by soldiers during the demonstrations and their horrific accounts of  fellow women protesters who had been tortured and imprisoned.

Somehow, I don’t feel I’m hearing from the mainstream press quite how involved women have been on the front lines of these battles.

Some of it could be the hesitancy of the women themselves. Mhani opened by saying that she had never felt as nervous facing Gaddafi’s troops as she felt facing a room of several hundred people.

When a booker from a radio show came up after Mhani’s eloquent account to ask if she would appear as a guest on the show, she demurred, saying she didn’t think she had anything to say. When men are asked to appear on the show they NEVER respond that they have nothing to say on an issue, the booker noted.

“What can we in the West do to help your cause?” asked one woman in the audience. The answer was disturbing. Any help perceived as coming from the West will lack credibility. Where was the West when we were being shot at by soldiers?  asked Bahraini protestor Maryam Alkhawaja.

A friend of mine who took part in the most recent Tahrir Square protests tells me that protestors frequently pass around the empty tear gas canisters used against them which they find stamped “Made in the USA.” That origin helps  fuel the suspicion of young Egyptians that the U.S. government is actively aiding the interim military government in suppressing protesters.

The question that worries me is whether women, who have been so important in the protests,  will be allowed to play an equally prominent role in the new governments forming across the Arab world. Already governments in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt look to be dominated by Islamist parties, traditionally hostile to women’s rights.

Iranian-American activist Sussan Tahmasabi pointed to Iran’s own revolution that installed Ayatollah Khomeini with the support of women revolutionaries—only to result in a country with even fewer rights for women. She warned that historically women are welcomed during the protests but after the revolution are told to go home and take care of their children.

But women who have taken part in the protests, including Mhany and Alkhawaja, take a more optimistic view, insisting they won’t stand for getting shoved aside.

Another optimist is the Egyptian novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif, who describes the heroism of women in her gripping moment-by-moment account of participating in the Tahrir Square protests: Cairo: My City, Our Revolution.

At the book launch in London last night, she spoke about her 17-year-old niece who put out a newspaper and distributed it in Tahrir during Mubarak’s internet blackout; women treated the wounded and started internet nerve centers. And on the less well-reported factory front, “Women played huge roles, calling out workers’ strikes,” she said.

Soueif, who wears her dark hair uncovered, described Tahrir as a charmed, almost utopian space of unity for men and women. Men suddenly became chivalrous, rather than sexual harassers. “You could smoke, sit together whatever headgear you were wearing,” she recalled.

Already, she claims, Egyptian society is seeing some of the fruits of changed attitudes about women nurtured in Tahrir Square. The military government’s attempt to discredit women protestors by sexually harassing them backfired with the December court victory of Samira Ibrahim in which a judge declared "virginity tests" illegal. The 25-year-old woman protester, who comes from a conservative religious family, was imprisoned by the military and subjected to a “virginity test” –a painful manual physical exam that fully exposed her body while soldiers watched. 

Ibrahim’s victory and her willingness to describe in public what the military did to her has “made it impossible for them to use that weapon again,” Soueif said.

After her victory, Ibrahim tweeted her thanks to Tahrir Square, which she said, "taught me to challenge."

Last month when women turned out in Cairo to protest the army’s violence against women demonstrators, including the shocking undressing and beating of the now famous “blue bra woman,” men formed a protective cordon around them. 

While the women had started by chanting “Where is the Muslim Brotherhood? The women are here!” The men, Souief recounted, turned the chant on themselves: “Where are the men? The women are here!”

I asked Soueif last night if she thought women would continue to play a leading role in the political arena, especially now that Islamist parties hold the majority of seats in the newly elected lower house of parliament. She suggested that women who were involved in the protests may prefer an activist’s role to a politician’s job, much as she herself does.

But she added: “Women will do what they want; I don’t think anyone is stopping them.”

We’ll have to wait and see.

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Comments
  • Jenny McPhee

    Great piece Sarah, and the women are needed now more than ever.