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Women Making Change in the Middle East and North Africa

FRIDAY FILE: The recent democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the now ongoing uprisings in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen reveal the tales of the people. Dubbed the ‘Arab spring’[1], the uprisings have had differing reactions from both governments and civil society.

By Rochelle Jones

Toppled governments, such as in Tunisia and Egypt; or protracted civil dissent as in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, all of the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have the common thread of violent crackdowns on civilians in an effort to suppress their discontent. Taking into consideration each country’s local realities and religious and political agendas, each experience has been different. However, the widespread conviction that sustains the Arab spring across the region is that people want their basic and equal rights and freedoms respected without distinction – such as those that are enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2].

Whilst the uprisings have not specifically been about gender equality, the issues have distinct gender dimensions and women have played pivotal roles in the Arab spring. They have put themselves and their loved ones in danger for the sake of democracy whilst also swimming against the strong undercurrents of the unequal gender dynamics in their societies. In this article, AWID examines some of the aspects of the uprisings that are impacting gender equality and women’s rights.

Women in the uprisings

Where there has been unrest, there have been women – marching on the protest frontlines, as well as in the background, strategizing, organizing, using cyberspace to catalyze change. In Egypt, women’s presence was very visible and well reported by the media. One report describes how “women were instrumental not just in protests but in much of the nitty-gritty organization that turned Tahrir Square from a moment into a movement. Women were involved in arranging food deliveries, blankets, the stage and medical help.”[3] Social media sites have proved instrumental in the early stages as well as in sustaining the momentum of the uprisings. Egyptian women, for example, were able to share information and links via Twitter to help women protesters protect themselves from sexual assault on the streets[4]. Asmaa Mahfouz - a now-famous young woman activist in Egypt - was credited[5] for starting the mass demonstrations at Tahrir Square, by creating a video in mid-January calling on young people to take to the streets.

Correspondingly, a Tunisian woman – Lina Ben Mehenni–was reported as one of the first to share information about events in Tunisia via tweets and blogs[6]. Described as a “middle class revolution”[7] (Tunisia’s GDP is almost double that of Egypt), simmering tension there was brought to the fore after a young university graduate set himself on fire in the street in an act of desperation. Women in Tunisia are well-educated and enjoy a host of rights not afforded to women in other MENA countries, such as those enshrined in the Personal Status Code that guarantees women birth control, abortion rights and equal pay as well as banning polygamy and child marriages[8].Women’s participation in the Tunisian revolution was high. As in Egypt, they stood shoulder to shoulder with men, holding placards and banners and demanding an end to autocratic rule.

In Bahrain, women gathered in large numbers at Pearl Square to demonstrate against the regime. They “demand[ed] their political and human rights, giving speeches and reciting poetry… [The women were] rescuing those injured by the excessive force used by Bahraini security forces; as well as documenting the brutalities committed against protesters and speaking to various media outlets”[9].

In Yemen, where security forces have also been shooting and killing protesters, thousands of women demonstrated against the President after he remarked that it was un-Islamic for women to join men in the antigovernment protests[10]. In Syria, where recent crackdowns killed over 30 protesters and the total number of those killed in demonstrations is reportedly over 800[11], women have been taking to the streets en masse in women-only protests, risking detention, beatings, humiliation and threats. In the face of increasing violence, “women activists have organised a Friday protest of Free Women showing solidarity with those seized or killed. Women-only protests in towns across the country have led the effort to let the outside world know what is happening in Syria”[12].

In Libya despite the ongoing violent civil war and NATO intervention women have also been active participants in the revolution. Libya’s women were strategizing and organizing from the start in the rebel capital Benghazi – “working side by side with men to keep the rebels fighting, society and the economy functioning and the uprising visible. Day jobs have been shed, replaced by a spirit of volunteerism that has led to ad hoc committees and fledgling democratic institutions.”[13]In March, women also demonstrated on the streets in Benghazi when security guards took Iman al-Obeidi away after she told foreign journalists at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli that 15 members of the Gaddafi militia rape her.[14]

“Society doesn’t change in 15 minutes”[15]

Two distinct waves of uprisings have been identified in the Arab spring[16]. The first wave, being the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, were typified by organized non-violence and resulted in toppling the governments in a relatively short period of time.

In Tunisia and Egypt, women’s rights are now at a crossroads. Political change brings with it mixed possibilities for women. An estimated 20percent of the protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt were women[17],who stood side-by-side with men for 18 days and succeeded in toppling a regime that ruled for 30 years. However, when a group of 300 women went back to Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day to call for equal rights in the new Egypt, they were attacked by a group of men who forcibly evicted them from the square and told them to “return home where they belong”[18]. At the government level, Essam Sharaf, Egypt’s new Prime Minister, named only one woman for his Cabinet and established a committee dealing with women’s advancement. Egyptian women’s rights activists have voiced their concerns, comparing it to the previous regime’s quota system that did nothing to empower women[19].

In Tunisia at a post-revolution rally held by women’s groups, the gathering was similarly disrupted by “thugs” yelling “women at home, in the kitchen”[20]. Given that women participated in all levels of society under Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, events such as these raise fears of a backsliding of women’s rights and the rise of conservatism or political Islam as a result of the revolution. It has been suggested that controversial legislation, such as the equal right to divorce that was passed in 2000, may soon come under pressure from Islamist lawmakers.[21]

The second wave describes the uprisings in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, which have been characterized by “heavy regime crackdowns featuring tanks, snipers, bulldozers and noxious gases”[22] and women are paying the price for their participation in the uprisings.

It has been suggested that women’s participation in the protests in Bahrain was a key motivator for government crackdowns[23]. At the beginning women kept coming to the protests because it was clear that the authorities were physically targeting men in the crackdowns. They were able to use this relative ‘impunity’ to their advantage[24], but since the brutality increased and women have become physical and political targets, they have become more afraid. “Thousands of women find themselves in poor psychological condition due to threats and intimidations and fear of injury, detention and losing their jobs and studies.”[25] Over 100 women have been arrested in Bahrain, and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has reported that many female family members of those wanted by the authorities have been assaulted in order to force wanted relatives to surrender. Women have also been harassed and humiliated at checkpoints[26].

The possible longer term impact of the second wave of uprisings on women’s political, economic and social rights is unclear given the human rights violations currently taking place. The future of these uprisings may not be exclusively determined from within their own borders, which the US and NATO intervention in Libya has proven. The UN Security Council authorized NATO’s controversial[27] no-fly zone over Libya in March, but it was not without internal division amongst members over what NATO’s role should be[28]. Since then, the intervention has been criticized for using the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention as a cloak for regime change.

Time for unity

Looking back to the ‘first-wave’ uprisings, Tunisian and Egyptian women’s rights activists face an interesting and challenging terrain ahead. After successfully mobilizing and strategizing during the revolutions, they will now need to keep pushing against the gender barriers they face. Women’s rights groups will face scrutiny as to whether they are embracing too ‘westernized’ ideals for women and they may also face accusations that their demands for women’s rights are divisive at a time when unity is crucial

International political and economic powers will likely play an important role in the outcomes of the second-wave uprisings such as in Libya and Bahrain – particularly in those countries are of strategic importance to those powers (for example Libya, which, with Africa’s richest oil reserves, is of great interest to Europe and the US). The complexities facing each of the ‘second-wave’ countries unfortunately means continued uncertainty for women. Until each conflict reaches some conclusion, whether that be reform or revolution, women’s rights activists can only continue to do what they have been doing since the beginning of the Arab spring – their best.















[15] A quote taken from: Power, Carla. 2011. “Thanks for the Revolution. Now go home”. Time (177:13), April 4, 2011. p.32. Also available at:,8599,2059435,00.html




[19]Power, Carla. 2011. “Thanks for the Revolution. Now go home”. Time (177:13), April 4, 2011. p.32. Also available at:,8599,2059435,00.html

[20]Power, Carla. 2011. “Thanks for the Revolution. Now go home”. Time (177:13), April 4, 2011. p.32. Also available at:,8599,2059435,00.html







[27] For example, the intervention has been described as another example of “selective vigilantism by the west”. See


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