North Africa, West Asia

Women and the Arab Spring: tough choices to make

Should women’s movements support a national revolution based on patriarchal principles?

Reem Mohamed
25 October 2013

When women joined men on the streets of Egypt on January 25 2011, they did not organize for a gender revolution; they joined the crowds to chant ‘bread, freedom and social justice.’ This was a big mistake.

Led by males, uprisings of the Arab Spring did not prioritize ‘equality’, a crucial concern for women. In 1991, when South Africa was redefining its national identity after four decades of apartheid rule, McClintock wrote: “women who are not empowered to organize during the struggle will not be empowered to organize after the struggle. If nationalism is not deeply informed, and transformed, by an analysis of gender power, the nation-state will remain a repository of male hopes, male aspirations, and male privilege.” The Arab Spring witnessed women falling into this trap: unconditionally supporting a national movement, hoping that gender equality would be a byproduct of toppling oppressive regimes. This causality is flawed; when formerly oppressed men rise to power, they are ever reluctant to share this power, especially with women. In fact, they may well seek to curb the rights and freedoms that women already enjoy so as to eliminate any possibility of empowerment.

The recent political developments in Egypt suggest the return of an autocratic regime. Women’s position towards any rising power at this point is influenced by the political developments in the last three years. Women were excluded from the transitional process and remain at risk of losing the limited rights they enjoy, not only in Egypt, but also in Tunisia and Libya – countries that successfully overthrew an oppressive leader and entered into a transitional process. This leaves women with a tough choice: supporting pseudo-democratic regimes that grant them some legal rights, or supporting the ‘revolutionary’ movements that eliminate any empowerment prospect for women.

Global trends

The participation of women in collective movements is not only welcomed, but can be strongly encouraged. The visibility of women in such movements may be important for a variety of reasons: first, femininity reflects fertility and symbolizes the continuity of the nation; second, women are mothers, wives and daughters supporting ‘their’ patriotic men and complementing their work; and third, the visibility of women strengthens the legitimacy of the movement’s international image and recognition. As long as women’s participation and aspirations are contained in a masculine framework, women are urged to revolt. In this way, women’s efforts are employed for a patriarchal project. 

Gender equality is considered peripheral to the national struggle, based on the assumption that women’s emancipation will sequentially follow national liberation. Accordingly, gender inequalities are never linked to patriarchy, but rather blamed on various political and economic ideologies including colonialism, dictatorships and capitalism, among others. In 1931 India, Nehru urged women to participate in the national movement and abandon the gender struggle when he stated that ‘in a national war, there is no question of either sex or community. Whoever is born in this country ought to be a soldier’ because of which he advised women to dedicate their efforts to the national struggle so as to rid themselves from all kinds of oppressions; imperialism and gender inequalities alike. Throughout the apartheid era, the South African women’s movement dared not speak about gender inequalities for fear of shifting focus away from the concern perceived as the most pressing: racial discrimination.

Disillusioned women of the Arab Spring

During the uprisings of the Arab Spring, women were directed away from gender issues, and towards the mainstream demands of ‘bread and freedom’. Because of their remarkable contribution to these movements, women expected that they would play a pivotal role in the newly-founded democracies; however, they were utterly disappointed.

A few days into the transitional period, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt delegated Judge Tariq el Bishry to head a committee for drafting the constitutional amendments that regulated the forthcoming elections. El Bishry appointed experts in law and politics including members of minority groups such as a Coptic Christian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he did not appoint a single woman. Women did not lead any political parties and were generally absent from negotiations over the transitional process with the SCAF. The opposition is similarly biased; gender issues are restricted to the women’s committees of political parties as they are not considered public issues. The first ministerial cabinet following the ousting of Mubarak included three women and the one appointed after the 2012 presidential elections included two women. Out of 100 members in the Constitutional Committee of 2012, seven were women; and five women are among the 50 members of the committee assigned to draft the 2013 Constitution.

Ideologically, women were perceived as a financial burden; as sexual objects; and as ‘homemakers’ who are expected to prioritize their family life over their personal interests. Despite the economic and political turmoil in Egypt, the first post-Mubarak elected parliament deemed it more urgent to curb women’s rights, seeking to annul the meagre legal and political gains they had made during Mubarak’s era. Parliamentarians discussed regressive legal amendments suggesting the repeal of unilateral divorce, the restriction on women’s movements, and the legalization of female genital mutilation (that was outlawed in 2008). The parliament also discussed removing restrictions on a marital age for girls and the return of Beit-El-Ta’a (a man’s legal right to force women to live in the marital home).

The 2012 Constitution reaffirmed gender stereotypes as it was generous with women’s welfare rights and stingy with gender equality and women’s empowerment. Article 10 stated that ‘the State shall provide special care and protection to female breadwinners, divorced women and widows’. In other words, the state must overtake the role of deceased and absent men to ‘protect’ women; otherwise, women will be protected by their husbands. The article also enjoins the state to ‘enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.’ These provisions were hailed as protective measures, when in fact they emphasized the gendered division of labour, restricting women’s identities to mothers, daughters and wives. With these constitutional indications, the new Egypt has carefully drawn the boundaries for women in public and private life.

The obsession with curbing women’s rights is trending across the region. In the midst of the Libyan national reconciliation process, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, Chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) vowed to loosen all restrictions imposed by Gaddafi on the practice of polygamy. Similar to their Egyptian neighbours, the NTC considered polygamy to be a more urgent matter than serious political challenges that threatened Libya’s peace and reconciliation prospects. Abdul-Jalil’s promise was realized when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court in Libya abolished all restrictions on the practice of polygamy in February 2013.

The thinning of the line between religion and politics following the Arab Spring has diminished the already limited prospects of women’s participation in the region. Jumping on the bandwagon, religious figures made numerous sexist statements seeking to restrict women’s rights. After Gaddafi’s fall Libyan Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ghariani called for a separation of sexes in law and society, and in March 2013, he urged the government to restrict women’s freedom of marriage. Tunisian women are not enjoying a ‘spring’ either. Before they held office in 2011 Ennahda party had promised to recognize and honour women’s rights. Once in power, the party sang a different tune; party members called for the recognition of women as ‘complementary to men’ in the draft Constitution of 2012. In the latest row of sexist politics, in September 2013, Tunisian women were reportedly used as sex Jihadists to be gifted to the warriors of the Free Syrian Army.

In March 2013 the UN Commission on the Status of Women sought to ratify a declaration to end violence against women. The draft document enraged political and religious leaders (with overlapping roles) in both Egypt and Libya. The Libyan Grand Mufti issued a fatwa calling upon all Muslim women to protest against the declaration as it jeopardized the rules of Islam. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement against the declaration, pinpointing ten main criticisms and shamelessly published it on the group’s English website. The Brotherhood contested women’s freedom to travel and work. The group also condemned the interference of state-law in marriage particularly regarding intimate violence. The statement also urged women’s organizations to ‘commit to their religion and morals of their communities and the foundations of good social life and not be deceived with misleading calls to decadent modernization and paths of subversive immorality.’ 

Making a safe bet

While considered ‘oppressive’, pseudo-democratic states do not have a problem with women’s rights, albeit not out of their commitment to gender equality. Promoting women’s rights is a safe bet; women’s rights neither question the legitimacy nor threaten the longevity of such regimes. In fact, reflecting the image of ‘supporters of gender equality’ earns the state international praise with little emphasis on either implementation or budgetary allocation. The former Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak headed the National Council for Women that successfully advocated for various rights and freedoms including the right to unilateral divorce and the criminalization of FGM, along with NGOs. Seeking international approval as far back as 1957, Bourguiba introduced some rights to Tunisian women that were rarely enjoyed in the Arab world: women had the right to divorce, polygamy was banned and marital age was set at 17. His successor Ben Ali maintained the stance towards women’s rights. However, both leaders had no regard to civil and political liberties. In Gaddafi’s era, female education significantly increased (including college level), women enjoyed the right to divorce and to equal pay for equal work, and polygamy was restricted. 

So what? A question presenting itself at this point: overthrowing an oppressive regime is necessary regardless of the collateral damage. In fact, women do have a choice. Referring to Gaddafi’s regime, a prominent Libyan human rights lawyer, Hana el-Gallal, stated: “In the old regime we didn’t have any voice in the economic and political sector. Now, in these two sectors we don’t have any presence”. Women may decide to play it safe and support the least of two evils; at least with pseudo-democracies women can work within the system without seeing their rights eradicated. 

So, should women’s movements support a national revolution based on patriarchal principles? Such a decision has to be a matter of choice informed by the political environments in each country; however, the developments in three of the countries that are ‘transitioning’ to democracy give quite a stark indication of women’s chances in a nationalist movement. 

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