Women in the Arab Spring Revolutions: The Egyptian and the Yemeni Experience

Graffiti depicting Sally Zahran, who died during clashes in Tahrir Square in January 2011.
Photo by Yasmein Ayman
 from 1000memories.com

To round off our special series on women in public life in the Middle East, we bring you an article written exclusively for Diwaniyya by Mira Tzoreff, guest expert on last month's episode "Women of the Arab Spring."

In this article, Mira asks what portrayal of gender relations emerged in the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Yemen, and argues that the reformist-Islamic model of activism that was evident among Egyptian and Yemeni women during the uprisings dissolves the binary approach used to classify Middle Eastern women either as feminists or fundamentalist Islamists.

Read the article after the jump

Women in the Arab Spring Revolutions: The Egyptian and Yemeni Experience
Mira Tzoreff 

History indicates that men initiate revolutions, that they take place in what is considered a distinctly male arena — the public sphere — and that male historians, who draw the boundaries of national collective memory, document their achievements, heroes, and myths. In doing so, they applaud the heroes of the revolutions that are in most cases male and, at the same time, exclude or marginalize individuals and groups who do not represent the mainstream from the historical narrative that filters down to the younger generation.

Women, on the other hand, respond in most cases to the call of men, who constitute the national leadership to take part in revolutions. They emerge into an alien sphere, the public one, bearing the slogans of the revolution and enhance collective revolutionary visibility with their presence. After completing their role as “assistants,” women always return to their “natural” sphere — the domestic, private sphere - to fulfill their destiny as wives and mothers.

Is this the portrayal of gender relations that emerged in the Arab Spring revolutions? And, if not, will the former portrayal reemerge after the heat of the revolutions fades, only to erase the gender achievements of the uprisings?

As early as April 2008, a young Egyptian woman, Usra Abu al- Fatah, organized a protest against food price increases, which involved young men and women. Al-Fatah, a religious young woman who wears a hijab is a social activist that works as an employment coordinator for a private Egyptian company. She is also one of the founders of the “April 6” youth protest movement. Through her digital skills and astute use of social media, particularly Facebook, this young woman managed to bring the messages of the protest to the awareness of many young people in Egypt. Al-Fatah appealed to people to “stay at home” in a bid for workers not to show up at work, for pupils to stay at home, and for students not to show up on university campuses in order to protest price hikes.

Al-Fatah —who meanwhile became known as the “Facebook Queen” — was arrested by the security forces of Mubarak's regime for inciting against it. The government refused to release her despite an explicit order of the Egyptian General Prosecutor. Only the intervention of Mahdi 'Akef, then the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, who demanded her release in the name of freedom of expression, led to her release.

Al-Fatah embodies the new young Egyptian woman. The combination of higher education, social awareness, political activism, and traditional-Islamic appearance is a one that characterizes a considerable share of the young women in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary age. They are true liberals in their assertiveness to fight for their own rights as well as for their nation's.  

The young women of Tahrir Square who responded to the revolutionary call and filled the squares to topple Mubarak’s regime last year also represent a new feminine model. These young women came to the squares equipped with gender awareness acquired in the long struggle for gender equality that has been waged in Egypt in the last two decades. This struggle produced rather impressive results, including a 2006 legal ruling issued by Sheik 'Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt, banning female circumcision (hitan) in response to pressure by women’s and human rights organizations in Egypt, and by international NGOs.

The struggle of Egyptian women has also produced results in the labor market, with jobs open to women today that, until the beginning of the twenty-first century, were considered strictly male jobs. One example is the judiciary where, since 2003, Egyptian women have been elected to sit on the bench. The most prominent of these women, Tahani al-Gebali, who holds a masters degree in Shari'a studies from al-Azhar University, was the first female judge appointed to Egypt's highest judicial authority, the Supreme Constitutional Court. After her appointment, an additional 250 women were elected to various judicial courts.

Another example is The Women and Memory Forum, an initiative founded by female Egyptian academics that aims to shape an alternative collective memory that includes women. These women want to change gender awareness in Egypt from pre-school education to gender-related courses taught at the university level, and are doing this both by re-writing classic children's books and by writing new ones that offer an alternative gender-based division of labor. Under President Mubarak, when rather restrictive censorship was applied to subversive texts published in Egypt, these books were only available for purchase in one store, Diwan, managed by women. In addition, Forum members authored Arabic language anthologies on gender and religion, gender and medicine, gender and law, gender and history, gender and literature, and gender and psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Forum members adopted the assumption coined by Foucault, “knowledge is power,” and declared that their goal is to mediate the feminist idea to Egyptian women.

The young women of Tahrir Square, therefore, were equipped with rather solid gender awareness, and the Square revealed an extraordinary gender performance. Women crossed the obstacles of fear, calling out boldly against the regime; they prompted young men to respond to their calls, confronted security forces, assumed risks, and even sacrificed their lives for a “different Egypt” or a “new Egypt.” The new female shahidas did not prefer death for their motherland over insufferable lives as social outcasts; they sacrificed their lives for the sake of a better future of their country.

The most prominent activists in the Square, including one of the April 6 leaders, were devoutly observant religious women, wearing the veil. However, The hijab did not keep them from anti-establishment political activity. On the contrary, wearing the hijab, they felt more confident and more authentic.

Tawakul Karman, one of the leaders of the revolution in Yemen, is another example of the process described above. Although the revolutionary situation in Yemen differs from that in Egypt (the former is a failed state that threatens to dissolve into multiple tribal territories), young Yemenite men have agreed to place the leadership of the protest in Karman's hands. When she was arrested in January 2011 for “incitement, sedition, and obstruction of public social order,” the regime was forced to release her 24 hours later in response to a wave of protest evoked by her arrest.
Karman, a married mother of three in her thirties, has a BA in commerce studies, an MA in political science from the University of Sana’a, and a diploma in investigative journalism from the USA. She is active in labor unions, human rights organizations (she is the chairperson of “Journalism Without Borders”), and was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace last year along with two other women from Liberia. She is also a member of the Islah party that represented the Muslim Brotherhood party in the Yemeni parliament.
She led the weekly demonstrations calling for the resignation of Yemen’s former President,' Ali 'Abdallah Saleh, the release of political prisoners, a ban on marriages involving female minors, and a minimum age of 17 for marriage for women. She has no hesitations in criticizing the conservative elements in her own party, and she exhibits independence in developing her own political, social, and gender world views. In the past she wore a niqab (face cover) but has since removed it. Today, she sports a hijab, since she argues that “female public activists that appear in public should be able to see their audience and be seen by them,” and furthermore, she claims, the niqab is not a religious-Islamic command but a social custom within the framework of common practices (urf).
Through her activities, conduct, and worldview, Karman also embodies the hybrid reformist-Islamic model, a model that dissolves the binary approach used to classify Middle Eastern women either as feminists or fundamentalist Islamists. This model is not suitable for societies in which secularism is seen exclusively as a western import and therefore faulty in principle, but applies also to societies in which it is occasionally imposed by heads of governments themselves, based on their contemporary narrow interests, and is extended and restricted according to their wishes. The desire to bring down the autocratic regimes topples both the secular and the fundamentalist models.   
The question is whether the euphoric gender performance of the revolutions was temporary, or whether this is an unstoppable gendered melody. It might be caused to retreat, it might be tempered, its sharp corners might be abraded — but it cannot be terminated.

Alona Ferber

Diwaniyya Contributor