Revolution is female: the uprising of women in the Arab world

The Arabic word for revolution, thawra, has a female gender. So does the word ’huriya (freedom), and so does the word intifada (uprising). Sara Abbas talks to the social media revolutionaries behind The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, a facebook group that is taking patriarchy head-on

Sara Abbas
2 December 2012

Yalda Younes, Diala Haidar, Farah Barqawi and Sally Zohney are four friends who are united in mission though separated by geography. Yalda (34) is a dancer and one of the founders of Lebanon’s Laïque Pride march. She lives in Paris. A fellow Lebanese, Diala (28), is a physicist by training and an activist by inclination. She resides in Beirut, along with Farah (27), a Palestinian relief worker with an avid interest in writing and the theatre. Sally (27) is a UN worker and rights campaigner who uses storytelling to challenge patriarchal ideas about women. She lives in her hometown of Cairo.

Like many others, the young women were captivated by the uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa last year. The moment was a poignant one for Arab feminists. Though few outside the Arab world know it, women’s radicalism in the region has long and deep roots that span more than a century. As the uprisings unfolded across the region, this legacy was there for all to see. Women stood not only in defiance of brutal dictatorships, but also cultural norms that many times encouraged, and in some cases enforced, women’s exclusion from the public sphere.

Yet, the euphoria following Mubarak’s fall had barely subsided when disturbing reports began to surface. In Egypt, women who had gathered in Tahrir square to commemorate the first international women's day following the revolution, were, as Hania Sholkamy has reported “attacked, harassed, ridiculed, shouted down and ultimately chased out of the square.” In the months that followed, women protestors would be arrested and subjected to virginity tests, intimidation, and trial by military tribunals. In Tunisia, the future of the country's famously progressive laws that safeguarded women's rights was suddenly uncertain. As Deniz Kandiyoti wrote in June, questions on the prospects for gender justice post the Arab-Spring uprisings “are receiving increasingly disquieting answers.”

In Paris, Yalda Younes decided enough was enough. Conscious that social media had played a critical role as a mobilizing tool in the uprisings, she decided to utilize it in support of Arab women’s struggles for equal rights.  The goal of the Facebook page was not to simply raise awareness; it was also to create a platform for solidarity with women activists, who may have felt isolated in their individual struggles all over the region.  In October of 2011, she launched the “Uprising of Women in the Arab World” on Facebook. One year later, in October 2012, Yalda and her collaborators, Farah, Diala and Sally, launched a campaign to commemorate the page’s one-year anniversary, and to draw attention to the issues at its heart.

Laila from Egypt

Laila from Egypt

The premise was simple: post a picture of yourself that starts with the phrase, “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because…”, then fill in the blanks. The photos began trickling in. Soon, the site was inundated. The page’s membership grew exponentially- from approximately 20,000 at the beginning of the campaign, to close to 80,000 today. Women and men, young and old, from Morocco to Syria and everywhere in between, posted photos of themselves holding banners. Some used the banners to cover their faces. Others showed them proudly. Others still revealed only their eyes.

Despite the positive reaction to the campaign, it has not been free from controversy, much of which has centered on a young woman called Dana Bakdounis. The one time veiled-Dana posted a photo of herself holding a banner that read: “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years, I was not allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body.”  The photograph generated an intense reaction and hundreds of comments, some supportive, others outraged.  Shortly after my interview with the campaign’s organizers, Facebook removed the photo, citing a number of complaints it received that the photo was “offensive”.

The organizers have fought back against what they perceived as censorship, and have pressed on with their photo campaign. They have also since experimented with various means of communication, including street graffiti and a “Tell your Story” campaign launched on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I spoke to the four organizers about movement-building in the Arab world, the challenges facing women’s rights in the region, and why they feel social media can be a dynamic force for change in Arab society.

How did you meet and decide to collaborate?

Yalda: We met through Facebook. I added a lot of friends as administrators to the page, and by coincidence those friends recommended Diala.

Farah:  Both Diala and Yalda worked alone until February [2012]. Then Diala talked to me about it, and I brought Sally in soon after. Sally and I had studied together at Cairo University.

Though the page has been there for more than a year, it really “exploded” in October. Why?

Farah: In February [2012] we had around 3,000 members. Around 1st October, 20,000. The first reason for this is our diversity. When the team grew, there was a better grasp of the events happening in the Arab world. Each of us brought her own dimension and her own interests, and that made it more interesting to people. The second reason was the things that had happened mainly in Egypt and Tunisia after the revolution…We noticed that even revolutionary guys, who saw women fighting beside them, well, after they reaped the success (or semi-success) of the revolution, they tried to marginalize the women. They said “Thank you. You can go back to your ‘normal’ life now. We’ll take over from here. Stay at home, and don’t go to the streets after 8pm”. And then the Samira Ibrahim  trial began against the army officers. It was the kind of news that made every Arab woman angry…this made the page grow, because we made it clear that we do not, and cannot forget.

Diala: Part of the page’s success was also due to the fact that we dared to tackle controversial topics related to women's status that are known to be as a taboo in the region. We questioned all the stone written social and religious doctrines. This raised the number of our supporters, because people are yearning to have those forbidden debates openly.

Yalda: The greatest inspiration for the page were women of the Arab Spring, like Samira Ibrahim, like Fadwa Suleiman, Tawakkul Karman, Manal Al-Sharif, Zainab Al-Khawaja. Also, we do it for the Moroccan girl, Amina El-Filali who committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist.  We wanted to honor these women and to give them the place that they deserve, because they were not honored enough in the revolution. But also to show that they can be an inspiration to us.

Hedaya from Palestine

Hedaya from Palestine

Why did you decide to launch a social media network, as opposed to an NGO, or some other mechanism?

Yalda: The initial idea was inspired by the unprecedented solidarity the Arab Spring created created among Arab citizens…What I’m interested in is the networking with people, and what these new social media technologies offer us. I don’t really have a lot of faith unfortunately in NGOs, nor in political organizations. I’m interested in how you can create something with somebody you didn’t know, without money. This is what the Lebanese Laïque Pride is about, we’ve done it for three years in a row now without money, even though people have proposed to fund it. Having no money demands commitment and real engagement... In the long term what is needed in the Arab world and in the world more broadly is more activism, but more activism of the “personality”. You can be part of a political group or an NGO but be passive. It’s more interesting to have nothing in exchange and to do it as a duty. Social media gives us that opportunity- to connect on something where we have the same views but without ego, because [the medium] is more anonymous than mainstream politics.

Do you agree with Mona Eltahawy that “they hate us”?

Farah. No, I don’t agree. I don’t think men hate us per se. I think they just don’t understand us, or historically were not allowed to understand us. Maybe it’s to do with the education system in the Arab world; we are taught to memorize things. And what you memorize from watching [others] everyday, is what you do, and what you copy until your daughters and sons do it all over again.

Diala: First I want to state my respect and appreciation to Mona Eltahawy’s approach and activism, though I don’t agree with everything she mentioned in her article. It is true that many men do hate women, but misogyny is a widespread phenomenon that is not limited to Arab societies. It’s not bound to a culture or a religion, but is rather more complicated than that because women’s denigration is multi-layered. But we have to admit to ourselves that woman-hating is widely spread in our societies where it is coupled with a feeling of shame and disgrace towards women. One of the Yemeni women who participated in our campaign for instance used her full name in an act of rebellion, just to oppose her brother, who is ashamed of saying her name, or his mother’s, in public. When we think of a woman as a "hurma" (that is something not to be seen or violated) it means that we are objectifying and thus dehumanizing her. This is where all the hate starts.

Yalda: There are no “they” and “us”. The campaign proves that there are many men in solidarity with us and that some women are patriarchal also.

Why did you pick the word intifada rather than thawra (revolution)?

Yalda: The reason I used it is because the word intifada [alludes to] being “fed up.” There’s a boiling pan, and it’s pouring over. And with the word revolution, the question is, against whom? Our fathers? The other reason for using intifada is that it is more political. Usually, the excuse we hear when we ask for women’s rights is that we have priorities. It’s not time to talk about this; we have a country to liberate or to build or whatever. The personal liberties are put aside. So I think it was interesting to reappropriate this word and make it more human. The banner of a woman who posted from Palestine says it well. She wrote, I am with the women’s uprising because my country is under occupation, but all some men care about it is whistling at me when I pass them in the street.

An impressive number of men have joined your campaign, including men from Saudi Arabia and other countries that, going by stereotypes, we would not expect to be particularly supportive of women’s rights.

Elias from Lebanon

Elias from LebanonSally: My personal experience in the revolution has taught me that for a long time, men in our societies underestimated the strength of women, and saw them at times as something to be protected and put behind closed doors… It’s overwhelming how real this issue [of men’s solidarity] is. It’s not just the two or three friends we know, or the network we personally have.  It’s men, as you said, from countries like Saudi Arabia where we didn’t expect support. The point of our page is not to address women specifically and say that women are victims, rather that we have to challenge each other and keep pushing the barriers placed on us by our societies, both as women and as men.

The pioneers of social media activism in the Arab world, such as Kulina Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said), always had a dynamic relationship with the street. The two fed off each other. Do you see this site as moving from the virtual space to the streets? And is that even a goal?

Sally: The campaign is more than online. It is strong in challenging preconceptions and stereotypes. It’s interesting that a veiled woman who posts her photo gets a lot of reaction from people prejudiced against her, who then comment and say: can’t you see from your picture that you’re not free? Your clothing proves it. The woman responds, defends herself, and so on. There’s a constructive conversation.

Yalda: Extremists visit the page a lot to spread religion, or to say,  “be careful, this page is western”, using the excuse that a woman has nail polish on, or whatever totally ridiculous thing they can think of. What’s interesting is that the page is allowing people from different horizons and opposite views to talk, people who would never have this discussion in the street because they just wouldn’t meet, or because they wouldn’t dare to, or because [the woman] would be in danger of being physically aggressed. This is a safe and secular place to have these conversations, and the conversations are long. It’s not a virtual thing. Having a dialogue can be very difficult and it is very much needed.

You called on people to show their faces when they post. Why?

Diala: We’re just trying to push the limits. We know that this is a sensitive issue that can be life threatening in some countries. But change comes with a risk. If we want to start an uprising, we first have to have the courage to uncover our identities. This is where everything begins after the fear barrier falls apart…

There is much anxiety about women’s rights in the transitions that have followed the uprisings, particularly when it comes to Egypt.

Sally: State violence against female revolutionaries started in the 1960s, but it did not get a lot of attention… after SCAF (the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces) took power on 11 February [2011], this policy, as a tactic, became clear. The officers would tell women: you are bitches, you are prostitutes, we are going to do x and y to you because you’re not respectable. (I’m not sure because they were taught so, or whether they actually believe it.) In terms of the virginity tests, most of the girls that were picked up on March 9th [2011] were from outside Cairo. They came from conservative backgrounds…So when one of them is put behind bars or subjected to a [virginity] test, either she won’t be able to tell her family, because she won’t get support, or she will speak up like Samira [Ibrahim], but face all those people that will accuse her of having lost her honor, and that will try to make a liar out of her. No one in the media wanted to speak about Samira’s case; I personally approached all those that I knew, and they told me it was a red line. This shows the dominance of this mentality, which plays on women’s honor, and that looks to shame women into silence…. After SCAF left and the Muslim Brotherhood took over, the game became to play on the theory of values and religion, that women shouldn’t be in certain places. Salafism is widespread, and the Islamic current in general is strong. The media is also centralized. You see these issues in the constitution-writing process now taking place…In the draft we’ve seen so far, article 36 says that we will rely on Sharia laws when it comes to women’s rights. Which interpretation of Sharia is being used is not clear. This is the only article in the entire constitution that mentions the principles of Sharia. The entire constitutional committee, which is mostly from the Brotherhood, supports the article, save for 10 members. The committee has said that we will negotiate on anything in the constitution save this article.

President Mohammed Morsi has announced that a referendum on the draft constitution will be held on 15th December......

( Read also Madriz Tadros and Hania Sholkamy for analysis of current events in Egypt )

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