Arab women have shown once again that women can often play important roles in revolutionary events. In Egypt and Tunisia they participated in the popular uprisings for democracy — and are continuing to press for progressive changes in their societies — just as they were active in labour strikes in recent years, in some cases even pressuring men to join the strikes.
“The women contributed equally to the revolution, like the men,” affirms Emna Ben Jemaa, a Tunisian lecturer and journalist. “We took part in protests in the street, without any discrimination against us.”
Women’s activism is not a recent development, notes Ms. Jemaa. “For Tunisian women, independence is not something that came with the revolution, it has been there.” Before national independence in 1955, Tunisian women faced severe discrimination. They were often taken out of school, forbidden to see male doctors and limited in the political sphere. Yet during this period Tunisian women developed an awareness of their deprivation and began fighting to advance their role in society.
With independence, President Habib Bourguiba played a pivotal part in advancing the role of women.
A “personal status code,” adopted in 1956, gave women rights that were unprecedented in the Middle East and the Muslim world. These included the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, to receive wages equal to those of men, to have access to mixed-gender education and to be granted divorces. In 1993 “honour crimes” — in which women were harmed, even killed, by family members for transgressing cultural norms — were criminalized.
As a result, the women’s movement in Tunisia is relatively advanced compared to those in other Middle Eastern countries, notes Ms. Jemaa. This paved the way for Tunisian women’s visible involvement in the revolution that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 and forced him into exile in Saudi Arabia.
“Prior to the revolution, women’s issues were not key,” she observes. “Freedom and democracy for all is what pushed us to revolt against the regime, as Tunisian men and women, side by side.”
‘We are still at the beginning’
After the ouster of the president, members of the previously banned Islamist Ennahda Party returned to the country. The party won the largest bloc of seats in the October 2011 parliamentary elections. Its leader became prime minister, although a secular opposition politician was named president.
“People assume that Islamism would interfere with women’s rights and freedom. But this is not necessarily correct,” says Ms. Jemaa. “When Islam came to mankind, women used to work and played an active role in society. So I don’t understand why people assume that the presence of an Islamist political party will lead to the exclusion of women.”
However, Ms. Jemaa admits there are fears of a possible backlash for women’s freedom if the country is ever ruled by a religious party. “People look at the examples of Algeria and Iran. History has proven that there is no guarantee that an Islamic party such as Ennahda will secure women’s rights. Even if they say they are for women’s freedom, there is no guarantee they will keep their word on anything after they come into power. This is the case with all politicians.”
So Tunisians need to be on guard, she concludes. “In terms of the future, we need a revolution in the way of thinking and in the mentality. Change will not come overnight. In my opinion, we are still at the beginning of the revolution.”
Side by side in Tahrir Square
The revolution in Tunisia inspired people in neighbouring Egypt to take to the streets on 25 January 2011 to demand freedom and dignity. But even before the uprising, female factory workers had staged major strikes in 2007 in the city of Mahallah.
When 2011’s protests began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, women accounted for 40 to 50 per cent of the demonstrators during the 18 days that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Women of all ages, with and without veils, set up barricades, led debates, shouted slogans and, together with the men, risked their lives.
The idea that men and women should behave differently was set aside during the revolution. Nawara Najm, an Egyptian journalist, blogger and human rights activist, recalls how she along with other women fought side by side with the men. “When we had to fight, I fought. When we had to hurl stones, I did. When we had to shout slogans, I did. We did whatever was necessary to achieve our freedom.”
On 28 January, dubbed the “day of rage,” she and other women helped mobilize the resistance. “When the police clashes intensified and the shooting escalated, some of the guys would retreat. At that point all the women would push to the front. When our male fellow revolutionaries would see us do that, they would return immediately and push to the front with us and overcome their fear. I was on the bridge when the severe fighting took place on that day. I was surrounded by women. We went forward to the front line and seeing us pushed everyone to come.”
That day also brought Ms. Najm’s worst memory of the revolution, when a person died next to her. “We were on the bridge by the Nile. What upset me was that his death was preventable, but we couldn’t call an ambulance. I tried to use my phone, but the lines were cut. Then he shut his eyes. I asked if he was asleep, but another person told me that he had passed away.”
But she focuses on the positive memories. “The 25th of January was the best day, because everyone went to the streets thinking that they would be alone. But I was filled with joy when I realized that I was not alone. It was a very emotional moment for me.”
‘No one can stand in the way’
For Ms. Najm, the revolution is still ongoing. “We managed to topple the head of the regime, but the entire regime is not gone yet and our key demands have not been met.”
“I am not too worried about the Muslim Brotherhood having political power in Egypt,” Ms. Najm adds. “They are a political organization that has the same right as everyone else to participate in the political arena. There is room for everyone in Egypt. All are welcome, and all different voices are allowed. No one can stand in the way of the will of the people anymore. The people have spoken and we have decided to fear no more. No one can silence our will for freedom.”
Salma El Tarzi, an Egyptian filmmaker, was also active in the revolution and echoes Ms. Najm’s fighting spirit. “I am not into any political parties. I prefer to remain neutral for now. I know I will always be in the ‘opposition,’ so I am there ready to demonstrate, or fight.”
Weeks after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president and power was transferred to the military, the youth movement continued to gather in Tahrir Square to protest the slow pace of reforms. Ms. Tarzi says there was a sense among protesters that the army had betrayed them.
She speaks in agitated terms about what happened when soldiers cleared Tahrir Square on 9 March: “They violently dispersed the crowd and arrested several activists, including women who had to undergo forced virginity tests. Those who failed the tests and were not married were later charged with prostitution. The police and army used the virginity test as a form of humiliation. The men suffered from different sorts of humiliation. It is just that they did not find means to humiliate men that are as harsh as the tests for the women. I’m sure if they had found something they would.”
Ms. Tarzi, like other women, continues to protest against the injustices that prevail in post-Mubarak Egypt.
From Algeria to Saudi Arabia
Nabila Ramdani, a French political analyst of Algerian origin, compares the role of women during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt with that of women in the 1954–62 Algerian independence war. “Women played an important role in the battle for Algerian independence. They planted bombs and acted as informants who would relay information to the fighters. But history didn’t give them the place they deserve in society, with an equal status to the men after the war.”
Ms. Ramdani believes that religion, culture and law have all contributed to the state of affairs in Algeria today, with certain interpretations of religion posing particular problems for women. In post-revolution Tunisia, Ms. Ramdani adds, the voice of women is louder than in Algeria because it is a secular society, with a distinction between religion and the rule of law.
She is very optimistic about the future, because women are finally speaking up. She notes that this is evident elsewhere in the Arab world, including in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving, several women drivers have posted videos online showing themselves defying the ban. “It was previously unthinkable that women there would defy the king by getting into their cars and driving,” comments Ms. Ramdani. The king has since promised that women will be allowed to vote and run in Saudi Arabia’s 2015 municipal elections.
“I am positive about the future for women in the Middle East,” she says. “The fear barrier has been broken. Fear was a major hindrance and it is gone forever.” The wind of revolt that is sweeping across the Arab countries has led people to realize that change is possible.
Women in different parts of the region face different challenges. While some countries have accomplished more, it seems that what women across the Arab world want is for their voices to be heard. They want their basic human rights to be respected in societies that are free and fair for all.