Disquiet and despair: the gender sub-texts of the 'Arab spring'

The extreme precariousness of women’s rights in post- Arab spring successor regimes can neither be fully accounted for with reference to the rise of politically empowered Islamist parties nor attributed to some unqualified notion of misogyny, but is determined by a complex combination of internal and external influences.

Deniz Kandiyoti
26 June 2012

The questions I posed over a year ago about the prospects for gender justice and equality in successor regimes in the wake of the “Arab spring”  are receiving increasingly disquieting answers.

A battle for the soul of the Arab spring developed almost immediately after the events on the Arab streets. There was talk of the “Turkish model” on the part of those who hoped for a cohabitation between multi-party democracy, a neoliberal market economy and Islamic conservatism, despite the evident flaws of this proposition. Iran jumped on the bandwagon appropriating the events as a continuation of the 1979 revolution (and what they subsequently dubbed the Islamic Awakening) only to be rebuffed by the new Arab leaderships, critiqued internally by its own democratic opposition and met with disquiet over its alliance with the Syrian regime. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia in particular strove to avoid contagion by adopting policies of containment at home and co-optation abroad by backing salafi parties and tendencies whilst posing as champions of regime change in Syria (thus raising the spectre of sectarian conflicts trumping legitimate popular democratic demands).

Whatever the geopolitical stakes around the outcomes of the uprisings, it is ultimately the nature of internal political settlements that will determine the prospects for inclusive democracy. Beyond the great uncertainty over the direction of post-authoritarian transitions (and it is by no means certain yet this is what they will turn out to be) what appears increasingly clear is that the politics of gender looks set to occupy centre stage in the coming struggles for self-definition of successor regimes. Two questions appear particularly pertinent. Why is it that in societies beset by a myriad of intractable economic and social problems endless debates about women’s rights and status continue to occupy the headlines? Why, despite decades of women’s rights advocacy and activism, does backsliding on women’s rights take place with apparent ease: what accounts for the extreme fragility of women’s rights platforms?

From screaming headlines to gender sub-texts

On his first visit to Tripoli, National Transitional Council (NTC)  Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil declared in his speech celebrating Libya's "liberation" on 23 October, 2011 that sharia law would be "the basic source of legislation, and so any law which contradicts Islamic principles is void". He thus pre-empted the decisions of any elected body on this crucial point. He specifically mentioned that polygamy would be made legal (despite the fact that polygamy was not outlawed under Ghadaffi but merely made subject to subject to controls and restrictions). This announcement apparently drew cheers and celebratory gunfire from a predominantly male crowd. Despite his subsequent assurances as to his “moderate” intent, mainly directed at the international community, this choice of priorities in the aftermath of internal strife that laid the country to waste and occasioned untold suffering did not fail to raise eyebrows.

Given that Libya threatens to descend into chaos as armed groups refuse to relinquish control over their respective fiefdoms, this faux pas (if it was one) might be overlooked. If, on the other hand, the assertion of Islamic credentials by contenders for state power in successor regimes prioritizes the refashioning of gender relations and targets women’s rights (as opposed to, say, developing a redistributive agenda for social justice and addressing urgent socio-economic problems) this sends out signals that are worth reflecting upon.

In Cairo at a time when continuous demonstrations by students, civil servants and workers were taking place, the rally to celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March 2011 stood out as the one gathering that was met with heckling and abuse, despite the fact that women had distinguished themselves as stalwart participants in the events leading to the downfall of the Mubarak regime. The same event garnered a much larger group of participants on 8th of March 2012 and went uneventfully, but episodes of harassment and abuse directed at women carried on unabated. Women demonstrators who were rounded up and harassed by security forces were subjected to forced “virginity tests” whilst in custody- a clear attempt to deter their public presence. These actions- widely reported by the media- provoked a public outcry and led to “apologies” from the military. However, there is as yet little sign that those responsible will be held to account. In an ironic turn of events a demonstration to protest harassment against women was itself subjected to assault- an object lesson on the intractable obstacles facing women.

On the face of it, developments in Tunisia appeared more promising. Unlike Egypt where women’s political representation has declined (to an abysmally low 2% of parliamentary seats, one of the lowest proportions in the world) the new assembly in Tunisia is 22.6 percent female - on par with the average level in Europe. Of the 49 women elected to the 217-seat assembly, 42 belong to Ennahda which closely followed the official election guidelines calling for parity on party lists. The decision by Tunisia’s temporary government to withdraw all its specific reservations to CEDAW - the first country in the region to do so - in principle opened the way for the democratically elected government to abide by its stipulations. Finally, Ennahda’s decision to retain a secular constitution and its willingness to entertain alliances with liberal parties raised hopes for more fluid outcomes with some latitude for women’s rights advocates.

However, Tunisian salafists have been pushing for an Islamic state and the strict observance of sharia law and taking action in pursuit of their objectives. A series of confrontations on the streets and on university campuses (such as the occupation of the University of Manouba) point to the sharpening tensions between different camps. Whilst some argue that Ennahda is vulnerable to pressures from salafists out of fear of being upstaged by them others point to the impunity with which salafists operate, suggesting there is collusion with the ruling party and an overlap between their ideologies. Secular constituencies- and particularly women- are feeling targeted, unprotected and under threat.

A recent article put these tendencies down to hatred of women and misogyny in the Arab world. This cri de coeur of Egyptian journalist Mona Elthahawy (herself a victim of sexual assault and police brutality) was predictably greeted by a volley of criticisms, some more temperate than others. Although she was accused by some of neo-Orientalism and pandering to the negative stereotypes of the West her stance was, in fact, fully in line with a genre of radical feminist writing that attributes all abuses visited upon women to a timeless notion of patriarchy (and the misogyny endemic to it). This stance paralyzes us if we are in the business of detecting patterns, conjunctures and ruptures that account for both continuities and discontinuities in gender relations and women’s rights. I argue, in what follows, that neither a Middle Eastern version of universal misogyny nor the rise of politically empowered Islamist actors and parties can fully account for the extreme precariousness and fragility of women’s rights platforms. A set of complex influences, both internal and external, have contributed to these outcomes in different ways.

Is there a “democratic paradox”?

The record of democratic transitions on women’s rights has been mixed and uneven across world regions. While there were serious initial setbacks for women in East and Central Europe and in the post-communist bloc more generally, a much more encouraging picture emerged from post-authoritarian transitions in Latin America. How does the “democratic paradox” play out in the MENA region? What are the factors conditioning the manifest fragility of gender equality platforms?

A common explanation is the contention that the women’s rights agenda never achieved legitimacy at the popular level. Without the “trusteeship” of authoritarian, modernizing leaders such as Ataturk, Bourgiba, or Nasser (or even more blatantly dictatorial leaders such as Saddam Hussain and Muammar Ghadaffi), the expansion of women’s rights, it is argued, would have no popular base and, therefore, no electoral appeal. If the implicit assumption behind this reasoning is that the societies in question have remained locked into unchanging traditions (of a relentlessly misogynistic character) then the spectacle of the young, mobilized, mixed-gender citizenries of the “Arab spring” should clearly encourage us to think again. The real question is why aspirations for inclusive democracy- the existence of which cannot be denied- come up against power configurations that are unlikely to translate these aspirations into governance outcomes.

Despite the authoritarian nature of post-dynastic and post-colonial regimes in the MENA region, the developmental phase of state-building was meant to deliver goods and services to citizens in return for loyalty to the nation, understood as an entity that transcends the bonds of kinship, community, sect or ethnicity. Wresting the control of women from these sub-national (and highly patriarchal entities) and including them as citizens of the state represented a major break, backed up by policies for universal education, employment, suffrage and social welfare. The terms of this inclusion (or the “state feminist” compact) were fairly clear. Expanding women’s access to education, to the labour force and to public space was principally justified in the service of a “greater good”; the creation of a stronger, more productive nation that enlisted enlightened mothers and sisters-in-arms to the project of national development. Although nationalist discourse was always ambivalent on the question of women’s rights, the constituencies created and nurtured by these policies made up the backbone of women’s movements in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey. This was but a brief moment, however, which did not survive beyond the 1960s. However, these constituencies -although marginalized and politically impotent- survive to this day and are now followed by younger generations whose formative experiences led to more diverse forms of political contestation.

The unravelling of the post-independence social compact in the years following economic liberalization and privatization policies in the MENA region witnessed the descent of authoritarian states into dynastic rule and crony capitalism, with governments becoming increasingly reliant on hypertrophied security apparatuses, high levels of repression and networks based on patronage, kinship and religion. The spaces vacated by state provision were filled by other actors, reaching into the grassroots of society. This period witnessed the rise of both Islamist oppositional movements and new forms of grassroots activism, some aiming to palliate the dearth of social services to the poor and the downwardly mobile. State elites seeking to bolster their flagging legitimacy, in their turn, resorted to alliances with Islamist social forces (whilst simultaneously clamping down on those deemed to present a political threat) and promoted various forms of state-sponsored religiosity. In Egypt, in particular, the encouragement of apolitical, pietistic forms of conformism, especially in the realms of gender and the family, “normalized” an ethos of social conservatism that now makes the task of ascendant Islamist parties wishing to translate this ethos into codified reality a relatively easier task.

We are dealing, in short, with the effects of a long process of reconfiguration of state and society which empowered and entrenched forces that are now best placed to capitalize on democratic openings but unlikely to embrace ideals of inclusive democracy, least of all in the realms of gender justice and equality. What is more, it is becoming amply clear that Islamist parties do not have programmes that depart in any significant way from the neo-liberal tenets of preceding regimes and do not have the will to introduce changes on any other front, hence the heightened and almost obsessive focus on gender issues and the position of women. This focus acts as a diversion that obfuscates the paucity of credible political programmes in successor regimes and is played up on the assumption that there is a populist consensus around “keeping women in their places”. The jury is out, however, on the success of this particular tack, with some commentators arguing that, in Egypt at least, since coming to power Islamist parties have already lost much of their legitimacy and appeal. However, the heavy handed interventions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that disbanded parliament, curtailed the authority of the president-to-be, accorded the army legislative powers and expanded the powers of detention of the police and army raises the spectre of a return to authoritarian rule. The Egyptian electorate that found itself having to choose for president between a former Mubarak era apparatchik and a Muslim Brotherhood candidate now finds itself facing a period of further uncertainty and the prospect of renewed authoritarian rule.

Hijacking women’s rights

The adverse effects of the endogenous factors detailed above were amplified by the manner in which international donor-led efforts to empower women became articulated within local power structures. A conjuncture that has facilitated the marginalization- if not outright discrediting- of advocacy for gender equality is the particular way in which global templates for gender justice and equality were imported and applied in the MENA region. The global agenda for gender equality- defined by standard-setting instruments such as CEDAW and by successive UN conferences on Women and their Platforms for Action- required monitoring at the national level. This led to the creation of national machineries for the advancement of women and an infrastructure of donor-funded organizations and NGOs dedicated to the empowerment of women. In the Arab world these machineries became appendages of authoritarian regimes and the cadres involved in rights advocacy were generally part of organizations that could only flourish under state patronage. Although tensions and contradictions between “femocracies” and women’s movements are prevalent throughout the world, they take particularly destructive and perverse forms where the women’s rights agenda is enlisted to serve as a “democratic” fig-leaf for dictatorial regimes.

One of the fallouts of regime change was that these cadres- and even those that were only tangentially linked to ruling circles- became tainted with the stain of collaboration with a corrupt government. The phenomenon described by Hoda Elsadda as the “first lady syndrome” speaks eloquently of the deleterious effects of the co-optation of the women’s rights agenda by a corrupt state. Likewise, in Tunisia the Union Nationale de la Femme Tunisienne, the “First Lady’s union” and its activities fell into disarray when Leila Trabelsi fled. Restructuring and creating a new leadership base took time, and as a result there were markedly few female candidates appointed to the transitional government. What is particularly disheartening about these developments is the fact that advances on women’s rights issues were, in fact, achieved by the painstaking efforts of women’s groups and activists of all persuasions who over several decades worked tirelessly at the national, regional and international levels- only to see their achievements hijacked by ruling circles.

Jumping on the gender equality bandwagon is a “soft option” used by numerous authoritarian regimes to indicate their commitment to a democratization agenda which they are, in fact, in flagrant breach of.  

Even the rulers of Saudi Arabia, whose response to the “Arab spring” was one of containment by offering backing for salafi parties abroad, attempt to pose as the emancipators of women at home. The “Turkish model” which was frequently invoked in the initial stages of the Arab spring, partly as a nerve calming measure, also presents us with numerous examples of how the gender equality platform can be opportunistically manipulated. During the first term of the ruling AKP (2002-2007) Turkey took the lead role for the empowerment of women in the Greater Middle East in the context of the Democracy Assistance Initiative of the G8. It introduced substantial reforms in its civil and penal codes at home in its attempts to meet the criteria for EU accession. This did not prevent subsequent and continuing attempts at clawing back these gains at a point when the Greater Middle East project was quietly shelved and EU conditionalities were put on the back burner. Women’s rights activists in Turkey are now following post-Arab spring developments with mounting apprehension, fearing an even more serious backlash, which is evident in - among other things - an attempted ban on abortion.

The opportunistic nature of engagements with gender equality platforms contributes to their derailment and demise. Acquiescence to retrogressive measures and muted or no resistance are often symptoms of the shallowness of these engagements. For instance, the imposition of quotas for women introduced in the discredited 2010 elections in Egypt, and used to the advantage of the ruling party, created widespread resentment. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) abolished quotas for women this elicited no resistance and was even received as a popular move since it had created great unease in many quarters. In such contexts, justifying clamping down on women’s rights with reference to a “cleansing” operation that returns gender relations to their authentically national or Islamically sanctioned forms can find more resonance across the political spectrum and unite politicians on the left and right as they attempt to score populist points off their rivals.

This brings us to a crucial final question: under what conditions do democratic movements and oppositions form cross-gender alliances and come to the realization that struggles for gender equality are an intrinsic part of the fight against authoritarianism and dictatorship? Paradoxically, it is in the Islamic Republic of Iran where three decades of repressive politicisation of women and sexuality are finally backfiring that the democratic opposition appears receptive to the notion of gender equality. Here is hoping that this self-evident equation can be finally grasped without having to endure several more decades of repression and suffering in the Arab world.

Read more articles on 50.50 providing a gendered analysis of the 'Arab spring' written by women in the region and by keen observers of unfolding events







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