The role of women in religion is a heavily debated topic, especially when related to the Islamic world and culture. There seems to be a common assumption, mostly shared in western society, that the Islamic woman is a submissive and passive one, incapable of making her own decisions and make her voice heard. I will take the example of the Arab Spring and the feminist engagement through it to try and dismantle this misconception.
Before diving into the main topic, it’s fundamental to underline that, when talking about what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, their experiences and voices are rarely taken into consideration: people talk about them, not with them. This is why almost all of the sources and articles cited, from which I have drawn inspiration or educated myself are written or created by women.
Another problematic issue that can be found in the roots of the main critics posed to Islam is the so-called “false projection”. False projection is a phenomenon done by majorities to project on minorities some problematic features that they possess but do not want to associate with themselves or want to hide. Susanna Mancini, Professor of Public Comparative Law at the University of Bologna, and Adjunct Professor of International Law at the Johns Hopkins University connects it with the fact that “Muslim women come to embody the projected visions of Islam as “the” patriarchal Other, which is a particularly useful device for the purpose of hiding an unresolved conflict within Western civilization”. This means that, especially concerning criticisms coming from outside of the Islamic community, it’s important to realize whether people are actually concerned about the wellbeing and freedom of others, or are simply blinded by a superiority complex that pushes them to consider their beliefs and lifestyle as the only right one, thus discrediting everything else. This does not justify nor condone the sexism and discrimination that is clearly present in the Islamic areas, but it’s meant to shift the focus on the fact that these prejudices are present in every culture and society, even the most “free” ones. To properly address the issue and make actual changes, it might be useful to not have religion as the main focus for criticism, but the society as a whole.
A pivotal point on the women’s rights discourse is indeed the Arab Spring. It shouldn’t be surprising that protests born against oppressive regimes to obtain better living conditions, basic human rights and freedom of expression were mostly supported by women and young people, the main victims of the corrupt system that they wanted to dismantle, however such a high degree of participation from historically underprivileged minorities was unforeseen by the authorities. Women marching alongside men in the quest for freedom showed to the governments the immense scope of the problem and how much it was felt by the population. It also underlined the dept of the separation between the elite, who could not even remotely predict such considerable participation, and the citizens, indiscriminately pushing for change and meaningful political reforms. In Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and other countries, women of all ages and social groups have not only marched in the streets but led several protests. They also held a fundamental role in spreading the revolution, especially through social media, like Asmaa Mahfouz, one of the leaders of the Egypt revolution, said in a video posted on her blog “I am a woman and I am going out on Jan 25 and am not afraid of the police. For the men who brag of their toughness, why exactly are you not joining us to go out and demonstrate (…) If you stay home, you deserve what will happen to you”1. It is also worth mentioning that, in the place where everything started, Tunisia, with Mohamed Bouazizi who self-immolated because of the constant police harassment, his sister Leila was one of the strongest voices in the protests, and with the other demonstrators they managed to make the president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years of power, flee to Saudi Arabia. The Jasmine Revolution, the spark which ignited the revolutions all over the Arab countries, was broadcasted and amplified mainly through social media, which were and still are a fundamental tool against dictatorships. Following this line, in October 2011 Yalda Younes created a Facebook page, called the “Uprising of Women in the Arab World”2, on which people had to post a picture of themselves that started with the sentence “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because…” and explain why. The notoriety of the page grew immensely, involving around 80,000 people from all over the world, women and men, some using “the banners to cover their faces. Others showed them proudly. Others still revealed only their eyes”3.
Women’s participation in the revolutions is fundamental also because it shows that the fight for human rights cannot be separated from the one for gender equality. When people seek for a better future, neither religion, gender nor race play any fundamental role, as it is clearly shown throughout all the Arab Uprisings, in which completely different people came together to fight for their rights.
A blatant example of the importance of women in the revolutions is Egypt. On the 25th of January of 2011 Egyptian women of all races, classes and professional backgrounds stood in Tahrir Square next to men protesting against their government and demanding freedom and democracy. They led debates, set up barricades, risked their lives in the hope for better conditions, and they were 50 percent of the protesters, with, between the several, Asmaa Mahfouz and Nawara Nigm as leaders. The director of the Nasra Feminist Studies Centre in Cairo, Mozn Hassan, said “No one sees you as a woman here; no one sees you as a man. We are all united in our desire for democracy and freedom.”
The astonishing number of 50 percent of the protesters being women can be easily explained when contextualized. Indeed, Egyptian women have always been fundamental in the history of their country, especially during the 1919 revolution and on March 16th, when they revolted against Great Britain’s occupation. It’s important not to forget Hoda Shaarawi, a pioneer of the emancipation of Egyptian women, who led them to join the demonstrations against the British occupation forces, and who also sacrificed her life for her country. While women have always been pivotal in the country’s history, contributing as much as possible to shape it, they have been always almost completely been excluded from important roles and positions. In fact, after the fall of Mubarak, during the transition period, no woman was included on the constitutional committee. This brought several feminist organizations to send criticizing statements to the Military Council and the Prime Minister, reminding them of women’s role in the revolution, that without them would not have succeeded. Unfortunately, their complaints and requests were the first to be excluded from the agenda of the Military Council and the Egyptian cabinet, and in the new People’s Assembly only 2% of the seats are filled by women, even though millions of them voted (mostly because there are no regulations to guarantee fair representation, like for example in Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria). Because of this, the feminist NGO Alliance for Arab Women wrote a charter called “Egyptian Women: Partners in the Revolution and in Building a Democratic Egypt”, in which they demanded to the Military Council and Cabinet amendments to discriminatory legislation, more civil and socio-economic rights, and fair and positive images of women transmitted by the media. According to the report ‘2012: the Year of the Exodus of the Egyptian Woman’, done by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, the country faced the greatest decline compared to any other country in international rankings for female political participation. Egypt has also seen sexual harassment become a technique to deter women from participating in demonstrations. In the march for gender equality of the 8th of March right after the revolution, the protestant were subjected to verbal abuse and physical harassment, while the sit-in of the next day in Tahrir Square was broken up, eighteen young women were arrested, taken to a military prison and at least seven of them subjected to forced virginity tests. Also during the second anniversary of the revolution in Tahrir these tactics were strongly deployed against the protesters, with claims of rape. Nineteen reports of mass sexual assaults were filed that day, some of them involving attempted murder and resulting in permanent injuries. The January revolution had rapidly degenerated, mostly because the main groups fighting for power did not care at all about women’s rights, but instead used several techniques to frighten, discourage and hurt women into submission.
The Yemeni protests started as a consequence after the Jasmine Revolution and Egypt’s ones, but with some major differences. Indeed, as Abdullah al-Faqih, professor of political science at Sana’a University states, “The protests are significant but Yemen is a very different place from Tunisia: we have no middle class, a weak civil society and a president who relies on social not political ties. Many of his supporters will stay with him until the last day”4. The protests happened with more than 16,000 people demonstrating in Sanaa and more in different cities, asking for the president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s dimissions. After 30 years in power, he announced that he would not run for reelections in 2013, but that did not placate the protesters, who remembered the same promise, obviously not honored, made in 2006 not to seek reelection. Compared to all of the Arab Uprisings, Yemen’s protests had one of the worst outcomes, turning into a vicious civil war, which created one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.
During the protests of 2011 one of the most active people, who also organized many of the protests, was Tawakkol Karman, who also won in the same year the Nobel Prize for Peace “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”5; these demonstrations were defined as “the first large-scale public challenge to Saleh in his 32-year rule” and she was imprisoned because of it.
Tawakkol Karman is the face of the fight for human rights and democracy in Yemen, starting from 2005 when she co-founded the Women Journalists Without Chains, passing through 2007 to 2010, during which she organized and led protests and sit-ins in Sana’a.
According to the Human Rights Watch, “like many Yemeni women who have joined the protests, Karman has been beaten, harassed and threatened with jambiyas, the traditional Yemeni daggers that many men carry in their belts. She and her relatives have received death threats”6. Women in Yemen face constant injustices, from being excluded from public life to forced marriages and legal discriminations. In this scenario, women’s participation to protests sends a powerful message of courage and heroism, and even when the President himself told them not to join protests, because “divine law does not allow” public mingling of the sexes, they only answered with more participation, more involvement, more pacific revolution.
Unfortunately, as stated before, the revolution did not achieve any of its goals, but instead provoked a civil war that resulted in a humanitarian crisis. Indeed in 2016 three-quarters of the population lacked access to clean water and sanitation, and half could not obtain sufficient food and medicine, and by 2018 the country was facing the world’s worst famine catastrophe in more than a hundred years, with 16 million Yemenis on the brink of starvation.
AFTER THE ARAB SPRING
The most important outcome after the Arab Uprisings is the change in how women are perceived in the context of the Arab World. During the protests, men and women fought together, talked, and debated. Many gender stereotypes have been, if not destroyed, at least seriously diminished in the minds of people who participated; the possibility to dialogue with each other benefitted both men and women in realizing their similarities and how much they can accomplish working together in creating a better future. But the shift has not only been in the minds of men. Women who fought for their rights and their families’ have put in discussion the stereotyped image of the passive Arab woman, showing their strength and courage. This change was also helped by social media platforms that spread their images in the middle of the protests and made them go all around the world, influencing not only the local public opinion, but also the global one.
But, unfortunately, they were the biggest victims of the counter-revolutions, which tried to return to the previous status quo, or in some cases to an even worse one. According to the activist Farah Barqui “in Egypt and Tunisia after the revolution…we noticed that even revolutionary guys, who saw women fighting beside them… 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 8 pm”. In fact, despite being fundamental and at the forefront of the demonstration, they have been systematically ignored in political arrangements and are severely lacking representation in almost all the Governments, with the main exception of Tunisia. It’s important to underline that many of the countries who took part in the Arab Spring do not, as for now, have democratic or even stable governments. It was a period of revolutions, a sudden change and innovation that left the area in a highly unstable situation, so many of the victories and achievements of the period, also concerning basic human rights, are now gone or seriously threatened.
Egypt and Yemen are just two examples of what happened during the Arab Spring, and even if the situations are completely different, from them it’s easy to see the importance of the feminist movements and the struggle that they went through in the name of freedom. Revolution is female, is made by women, with women, unthinkable without them; indeed thawra, the Arabic word for revolution, has female gender.
There are so many stories of fighters and thinkers who revolutionized how people see Islamic women and who fought the patriarchal view of the world in the hope of improving not only their lives, but also the ones of everyone, like Manal al-Sharif, who became a symbol of female emancipation when she was filmed behind the wheel of a car in Saudi Arabia, a country in which, until very recently, women were not allowed to drive. She faced serious backlash, even death threats, and the loss of her job, but she persisted, saying “They just messed with the wrong woman”. She is just one of many examples, like the Bahrain activist Zainab al-Khawaja, who was given a jail sentence of two months for tearing up a picture of the king and is facing several other charges for participating in protests, or the 45,000 Syrian refugee families in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan who are completely run by women who struggle to maintain them and survive.7
For a more complete analysis on how the image of the Islamic woman is perceived, is important to mention that the misconception of the Islamic women as submitted and mistreated, mostly pushed by the American propaganda, is not only the product of Islamophobia and general ignorance, but is also an excuse used to legitimize the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, to “liberate people”, which practically meant conquer territories and massacre human beings for profits.
In the end, the main issue is that, while the revolution is indeed female, people have done their best to prevent women from continuing the process of liberation that starts in the streets and continues in the parliaments or councils. The fight for equality has just begun, and the only way to win it is to continue fighting and challenging stereotypes, to try to achieve not only formal equality, but also a substantial one.
3Sara Abbas, Revolution is female: the uprising of women in the Arab world; Open Democracy website (2 Dec 2012). Website (last access 5 Jun 2020): https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/revolution-is-female-uprising-of-women-in-arab-world/
4Tom Finn, Yemen arrests anti-government activist; The Guardian (23 Jan 2011). Website (last acess 06 Jun 2020): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jan/23/yemen-arrests-protest-leader
6Letta Tayler , Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman Demands Security Council Take Action on Yemen; Human Rights Watch (18 Oct 2011). Website (last access 06 Jun 2020): https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/10/18/nobel-laureate-tawakkol-karman-demands-security-council-take-action-yemen
7UNHCR report, Syrian refugee women fight for survival as they head families alone;UNHCR (08 July 2014 ). Website (last access 6 Jun 2020): https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2014/7/53bb77049/syrian-refugee-women-fight-survival-head-families-alone.html
Susanna Mancini, Patriarchy as the exclusive domain of the other: The veil controversy, false projection and cultural racism; Oxford University Press and New York University School of Law (2012)
Sara Abbas, Revolution is female: the uprising of women in the Arab world; Open Democracy (2 Dec 2012). Website (last access 5 Jun 2020):
Honaida Ghanim, Between Trauma and Resistance: Feminist Engagement with the Arab Spring; HEINRICH-BÖLL-STIFTUNG (18 Jan 2017). Website (last access 5 Jun 2020): https://lb.boell.org/en/2017/01/18/between-trauma-and-resistance-feminist-engagement-arab-spring
Aida Abu Ras, Hatoon Al Fassi, Magda El Sanousi, Nabila Hamza, Shahrazad Kablan, Dr. Fatemah Khafagy, Dr. Dalenda Largueche, Maria Frederika Malmström, Hibaaq Osman, Dr. Mervat Tallawy, Have the Arab Uprisings helped or harmed women’s rights?; paper by the Think Tank for Arab Women (July, 2012)
Marie Frederiksen, The key role of women in the Egyptian revolution; In defence of Marxism (8 Mar 2011). Website (last access 06 Jun 2020): http://www.marxist.com/key-role-of-women-in-egyptian-revolution.htm
Guy Adams, Manal al-Sharif: ‘They just messed with the wrong woman’; The Independent (23 May 2012). Website (last access 06 Jun 2020): https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/manal-al-sharif-they-just-messed-with-the-wrong-woman-7778800.html
BBC News, Bahrain activist Zainab al-Khawaja given jail sentence; (26 Sep 2012). Website (last access 06 Jun 2020) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-19727534