Women’s Contribution to the Arab Revolutions

Posted on: April 27, 2012, by :

egypt_women_tahrirDr. Hatton Ajwa’d Al-Fassy

The Arab Revolutions broke out in early 2011. Two found success within a few weeks, a third is still groaning and moaning under the yoke of megalomania, and the fourth is impatiently waiting for the national leader to comprehend the demands of the oppressed people fighting the status quo.

What typifies these movements is that they have been sparked and led by youth, who have proved their capability to stage a successful uprising. Their accomplishments have not come from a vacuum, but from a competence to close ranks and break the archetypical impressions that previously depicted the youth as being trivial, unsophisticated, leisure-driven herds distancing themselves from current events and issues in order to pursue worldly bliss and personal interests.

Over the years, the Arab vanguards were accused of running randomly after western novelties and arts in a way that caused their detachment from their own identity, faith, and distinctiveness — an image that proved to be utterly erroneous. We have witnessed free, munificent, conscious, orderly Arab youth capable of presenting their perspectives and platforms, elated of their identity, and fully aware of the genuine dimensions of their inalienable rights, social justice, and political participation.

It is noteworthy that we have witnessed revolutionary youth distancing themselves from any form of discrimination on any basis of gender, race, descent, faith, sect or other element causing division. They look upon all humans as having equal status, a state of affairs that appeared crystal clear in their initiatives and actions as they organized protests and rallies, and lobbied for reforms.

Contrary to the common clichés that call to our memory Napoleon’s aphorism ‘cherchez la femme’ (look for the woman) in case of any betrayal or treachery, women have been present on the ground in recent Arab upheavals. Hand in hand with men, the woman has shown herself not only as an obdurate revolutionary or as a positive initiator or as a supportive interlocutor, but also as a prominent human rights advocate and persistent oppression fighter. Women of various identities have joined forces with their fellow men and every now and then, they even act without them.

I have been overwhelmed by the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni women, in particular. Meanwhile, I believe that Libyan women are prepared to display their inherent attributes in the forthcoming days. I am not referring to the first ladies of Tunisia and Egypt, namely Leila Al-Tarabulsi and Suzan Mubarak, respectively, however.

What interests me most is the vital role played by women in pushing revolutions forward at different stages of their lives. For example, consider Hana of Tunisia, the mother of martyr Mohamed Albou-Azizi, and the bereaved mother of martyr Khaled Saeed of Egypt. Many other mothers have mourned sons and daughters who bravely sacrificed their lives for the sake of liberty. They are not different from the antecedent mothers who had generously sacrificed their martyred sons for the sake of the freedom of their fatherlands. Their readiness to sacrifice more is limitless, if that is the price of ridding their soils of tyranny and authoritarianism through toppling despotic dictators.

Throughout history, we have witnessed devout female youth preparing and strengthening themselves to liberate their homelands from arbitrary regimes, through actions that speak much louder than mere empty words.

In the context of the April 6 Movement, Asma’a Mahfouz has shown admirable valor throughout her experience on Youtube since 2008. Through this social media site, she managed to address youth and express her intention to take to the streets on January 25, even if she had to do it alone. A gallant call that echoed loudly among the youth, who did not wish to be disgraced as gutless, resulted in hundreds collaborating with her.

We have witnessed how the spirit of bravery and fortitude has found its way in thousands of male and female youth, who joined Asma’a in Tahrir Square as she called them to. Her valor appeared when she publicly confronted one of the cabinet ministers before the gathered media and asked, “Why do you hammer us?” Not only this, but she had her own video camera and managed to shoot incidents and directly upload her footage for viewing on Youtube. Another confrontation occurred on Kasr-el-Nil Bridge with the brutal security men who atrociously waged war against their own people. She refused to yield or lay down her arms or display any gesture of surrender before the threatening, unruly, and ferocious police during her sit-ins in Tahrir Square. She declined to give up and stuck to her demands while heaving the ceiling of her courageousness in a way that set an intrepid example to her fellow men, who hated to be less valiant.

Women’s contributions in the Arab Revolutions have not conveyed a specific image or an exclusive identity. We have witnessed the march of freedom including among its ranks all sorts of women from all walks of life and all age groups, including mothers, as well as grandmothers, adult women and young girls. Muslims as well as Copts, the young and the aged, the employed and the jobless, they all teamed up.

Amongst the revolutionaries, we have witnessed the rich side by side with the poor, the barefaced, the veiled, and unveiled putting their shoulders to the wheel with other women dressed in the Niqab without any discrimination whatsoever. They all advocated a sublime goal, away from any exclusive feminist rights, since the struggle for freedom, justice, and dignity within the same nation does not recognize any barriers, whether it may be ethnic, religious, sexual, or whatever. All the pages of the social media websites, including Facebook, and other printed and visual media have displayed images of women playing various roles in the sacred battle for liberty. Men and women stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to sacrifice their lives in defense of their national gains.

Several Arab women’s names and numerous instances of inherent national commitment have revealed themselves in the course of the ongoing wave of Arab revolutions. Arab women were seen shouting slogans cheered by revolutionary rallies. An example of this is the Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, chief of Women Journalists Without Borders, who had been detained by the Yemeni President after having been seen leading a rally with hundreds of thousands demonstrators cheering her slogans. Women have always been sacrificing their blood and lives in the ongoing upheavals. Another example of sacrifice for the cause of liberty is the Egyptian activist Sally Zahran whose head was injured by a thug-hurled stone.

Women’s participation in all the lead-up and follow-on stages of the Arab revolutions remains an issue tabled for further analysis and deliberation. This new image of Arab women remains at odds with the typical forms of subordination, discrimination, expropriation and harassment, all at the expense of their dignity and humanity, that women continue to endure.

Following the success of our Arab Revolutions and the achievement of the intended objectives, we must follow up on the status of women and ensure that honor and dignity can be restored to women in the democratic life to which we all aspire. Gone are the days when women were regarded a marginal element in society. The revolutions that broke out throughout history in the East and West are to be taken into account in our evaluation of women’s status. We can always bear in mind the Iranian revolution, which regretfully withdrew woman’s gains once their upheaval was pronounced a success.

We need to look at the positives associated with women, but it is imperative for each and every woman, activist, and feminist organization to continue the fight for full and equal rights of women and turn down any concessions. They must continue to fully participate in the post-revolution environment. Women must reject falling into the background and refuse symbolic posts or positions. We must remain active. We should keep our eyes open and bear in mind that for the revolution to bear fruit, it is imperative to put an end to all forms of injustice and discrimination against women. We must create a new atmosphere that allows women to enjoy the freedom, dignity and humanity that they deserve on equal footing with their fellow men.

Dr. Hatton Ajwa’d Al-Fassy
is a Professor of Women’s History at King Saud University
Image courtesy of nebedaay under a Creative Commons License