Arab insurgencies, women in transition

The waves of change in the Arab world have women at the centre. But how will they fare as revolt turns towards a new political and social settlement? Rada Ivekovic considers the emerging balance.

Rada Ivekovic
8 March 2011

The events of 2011 show how much democracy is wanted and needed by the people of the Arab world. The Tunisian and Egyptian dictators have already fallen, the Libyan one is shaking, and others too will surely follow in their train. In all cases it may be a long way to democracy, both in the formal sphere of politics and representation and in the new social spaces that are emerging.

The experience and status of women are a test of progress in both areas. Here, commonalities in the waves of change over the region contain grounds for optimism.

The mutually reinforcing protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain and Algeria (to name only these) express the aspirations of a predominantly young, modern and urban population for freedom, jobs and a modern democracy. They are notably inclusive, with all sections of society represented; and their ethos is admirably unprejudiced, courageous and unflinching - a historic instance of politicisation in the best sense. By the same token, they have benefited (at least initially) from their fluid structure, and from the absence of traditionalist influences (party leaderships or religious slogans).  

If there is a cloud on the horizon, it concerns less the movements themselves than the linkages between their countries and an international order where interests of state, economy and geopolitics remain entrenched. So much is at stake here: from the United States’s role in the “greater middle east” and the Israel-Palestine tangle to the west’s oil dependency and panic over migrations.

The concern of the most powerful members of the “international community” to preserve the status quo shapes their response to the risings. Even their cautious “support” for the popular movements is shadowed by their previous (and in many cases continuing) commitment to regional “stability” (that is, hegemonic order) and the authoritarian rulers who are seen to enforce it.

As the historic order in the middle east (as elsewhere) mutates into the “multipolar world” (to use but one of its possible labels), there is no guarantee that new governments and leaders there will continue to accept the old rules. The scale of the achievement and challenge of the young architects of transformation will become clearer in the coming months.

The adaptive moment

An early accomplishment of the protesters has been to make clearer how both western powers and local despotic leaders have used the scarecrow of fundamentalism to protect their own interests. It may be premature to say that Islamists, who have kept a very low profile through the crucial weeks of mobilisation will not re-emerge as a potent force; but it is surely significant that in (for example) Tunisia and Egypt they declared themselves to be in favour of democracy, secularism and free elections, and joined the movement belatedly not as its would-be leaders, but as one of the components of a diverse society.

The Islamists in these countries - the An-Nahda (Renaissance) party of Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - have been heavily repressed, and have adapted by operating more as social-welfare networks than as parties. Now they will be obliged to adapt to an open political context, and offer their (conservative) ideas alongside new competitors.

In Algeria and Yemen, years of violence make the landscape of any emerging democracy and the place of Islamists within it different. In the former, the forced exclusion of Islamists from power even after their electoral victory in 1991 highlights the paradoxes and dangers of attempts to twist the rules of democracy. Even over Turkey, the fear of Islamism is a big part of Europe’s stance towards the government of its Justice & Development Party (AKP).

In all these cases, the focus on Islamists has meant a certain neglect of the fact that it is the army or police that have presented more of a threat to democracy in the Arab world. These forces are also conservative, though not necessarily Islamist. But they too have imposed strong restrictions on society outside the formal channels of political action: through family and neighbourhood surveillance, religious schools and precepts, and pressures on women to behave or dress in certain ways. Indeed, their focus on the status of women makes the latter particularly vulnerable.

This exertion of power over women and other groups shows that repression and limitations on freedom can be imposed by society as well as by the state, regardless of any formal democratic structure. A society, a “civil society” too, may be conservative, or worse, repressive. There have been fascist societies, there may exist fundamentalist societies, where the repressive element prevails. But this has not been the case in Tunisia or Egypt, even under the previous authoritarian regimes. The lesson here is that there is also indetermination in society, which means also its possibility to evolve and be transformed.  

After the spectre

Europe too is familiar with these issues. There have been many religious parties in Europe (in the form of Christian Democrats and the like). Many are and have been (during the second world war, for example) both conservative and staunchly anti-fascist. Many would have preferred women to stay at home - though women have resisted, and those parties have been given time to reflect and evolve. This right to be political cannot as a matter of justice and logic be denied to Muslims in countries such as Egypt.

In addition, many rights - to divorce and contraception, in relation to employment and education - have been won against Christian precepts and Christian Democrat and other quasi-religious forces. In the post-1989 transitions in eastern Europe, the mainly nationalist ruling parties tended to oppose many rights that women had already enjoyed under the previous socialist regimes. Yet the women concerned were alone in questioning the legitimacy of “democratic transition” on account of these rights being trampled on.

In principle these rights could still be extinguished in countries where religious parties gain sufficient influence. Yet there is every chance that, in the Arab world as in Europe, women will resist efforts to withdraw the rights they have already won (in Tunisia, for example, where many urban women and students carved out spaces of freedom under the old regime) and continue to campaign for more.

In all the Arab revolts of 2011, women have been central participants. They have also yet to secure their place in the Egyptian and Tunisian negotiations. Most revolutions are ready to compromise on women’s rights: it is the easiest consensus among males. So the need to avoid any sacrifice of women’s rights is acute.

This means keeping social and political matters in balance, and neglecting neither as today’s struggles develop and diversify. There will be (to cite a European obsession, of little consequence locally) veiled and unveiled women, and those who cross the lines; and there are different meanings to both the veil and its absence. All women should be supported by all means, but they are already sufficiently aware to know what they are doing. Each society has to work out for itself and at its own speed its form and its aspirations. Everything takes time, but these populations have just shown their political maturity. There is no all-purpose answer or recipe, and neither will a priori anathema do.

The routine flying of the Islamist spectre just won’t do any longer as a device for keeping despots in power over a region exposed to all the contradictions of the times. This is not to deny that there will be risks for women’s rights and status in the coming period. But they have to be faced without excessive fear. And amid the flux, Europe could learn something from the Arab world now.

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