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How women have been affected by the upheavals in the Middle East

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Meg was invited to take part in a debate at Warwick Debating Union at the University of Warwick.  She spoke in opposition to the motion: “This House believes that the Arab Spring has caused more harm than good”, the motion was lost. Her speech follows.


The process set in motion by the Arab Spring will continue for some time to come. There is no settled political, social and cultural framework for many countries in the Middle East, nor likely to be for some time. My remarks concentrate on how women have been affected by the upheavals that have shaken many countries.

New opportunities have emerged for many women, but severe difficulties have arisen for some. At this time of change women are yet to achieve what many would consider equality with the male population.

But, I argue that the Arab Spring has amplified their voices, and shows promising progress in empowering women.

Women were essential

The Arab Spring led to an explosion of new activism by women.

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 the Pearl Square 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.

By participating side-by-side with male protestors, women were vital to maintain the movement. This helped create a sense of equality and lessened gender differences a defiant stand against assertions like Yemini President Salehs’ that it is somehow “un-Islamic” for men and women to march together.

The Politics of Sexual Violence

But one by-product of the upheaval has been lawlessness and disorder, with rape and sexual assault used to silence women and keep them indoors. Some ultra-conservative Islamists have blamed women who are sexually assaulted at demonstrations, saying the harassment was their fault for mixing inappropriately with men.

Law enforcement has been unwilling to challenge this wave of sexual violence. Indeed, in some cases when law suits have been filed against perpetrators the victims have been targeted. Iman Al-Obaidi, a Benghazi lawyer told journalists she was raped by security forces in March 2011; she was then accused of defamation against the Gaddafi government. She was subsequently arrested by security police and detained for several days.

Women have joined with men to remove dictatorial regimes but at the same time they have had to combat traditional, patriarchal attitudes including physical threats.

How have women responded?

Have they given up?


They have fought back.

This anti-harassment backlash has a number of forms. There have been marches in Cairo against sexual harassment and the creation of self-defence courses. Samira Ibrahim and Maha Mohamed successful challenged the legality of forced virginity tests of female protestors in the Egyptian courts.

We have also seen creative reactions - An app called Harassmap sent text alerts to women regarding “danger zones” where harassment or assaults have been reported.

The Rise of Political Islam

The situation for women in the Arab world is further complicated by powerful Islamist groups who hold conservative notions of women’s role in society, such as Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party. During the transition process, Islamist political factions competed to outbid each other’s conservatism, undermining women’s rights in the process.

Many Egyptian young women were glad to see the end of Mubarak and voted for Mohammed Morsi as the change candidate. They felt betrayed by some of his actions including attempting to turn back the clock on women’s rights. The intervention of the army was therefore welcomed by many, but leaves the country in a precarious position with a lack of clarity about how to achieve the responsive democracy Egyptians took to the streets to demand.

Salafist students, who support a strict interpretation of Islam, called for gender separation in their courses and for women to be fully covered when attending university. Worryingly, the second demand met little resistance from school administrators.

But it would be wrong to view all Islamic political organisations as the same. Traditional conservative factions are sometimes prodded into more moderate position as can be seen in Tunisia, with the relatively liberal statements on women’s rights of the Ennahda party. My experience working with Middle Eastern female MPs from different backgrounds - from strict Shia Muslims to secular women - is that they agree on a wide range of issues affecting women such as the need to stop domestic violence and child marriage.

Gender inequality is not sanctioned by Islam, although patriarchal attitudes are often cloaked by sanctimonious claims of religion. We have seen energetic debate about the appropriate relationship between government and religion. For example, progressive Islamist women’s groups such as Musawah (meaning equality) work to promote faith-based reinterpretations of gender issues drawing on Islamic scripture and teaching.

Women’s representation in Parliaments

Women make up nearly half of the population in the Arab Spring countries, yet account for just 14% of the members of Arab parliaments. In some countries, the use of quotas has accelerated women’s inclusion into public office. The Tunisian “zipping” system provides an encouraging example of this, with parliament being composed of 27% women. The selection of a woman, Mehrezia Labidi as vice chair of the Tunisian National Founding Assembly would not have been possible without the advent of the Arab Spring.

However inclusion does not always translate into progressive policies. Requirements for quotas of women for elections can lead to tokenism, with women who are not politically active and motivated placed on lists by male leaders to make up the numbers. Those women who are politically active rely on the support of men who control the lists to remain in positions of power.

But it’s not just representation that is important. This overlooks the efforts made and the benefits gained by the women through the Arab Spring. Women gained a platform for their voices to be heard.

In Tunisia, Amira Yahyaoui founded Al Bawsla, an organization that helps people understand the role politics plays in their lives and how to work together to protect their rights. Likewise, Alaa Murabit is publishing a Libyan Women’s Charter that has been produced in consultation with women across the country. 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.

Gaining a sense of empowerment

Women activists in Arab Spring countries point to the sense of empowerment that they have found by fighting for their rights. Their experience is shared by women in the region from countries which weren’t strictly part of the Arab Spring. As constitutional monarchies Jordan and Morocco have begun reforms brought on by observing the changes in nearby countries. Women too in Iraq with its fledgling democracy also work for change.

The experience of pushing for collective, national goals has been invaluable. That cannot be legislated away or removed from an individual’s memory. The memory of coming together as agents of positive change is a seed that will grow. Women’s rights are part of the long march towards democracy, one that is hard to stop.


As I said at the beginning, the process set in motion by the Arab Spring will go on for some time. The situation in Egypt is very fragile, and equally the situation in Tunisia is causing concern. Yet dedicated women in many countries across the region who took part in the uprisings, who found that they have a voice, will not return easily to a passive existence where men make the decisions.

Despite undoubted difficulties, the Arab Spring has enabled women to participate in the political process. They have had to fight for the issues that affect them. While the quantifiable results may so far be disappointing, there is every sign that women will continue to push against traditionalist forces that try to diminish their rights.

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