The Arab revolution has a woman’s face

2011 was the year of worldwide revolt against austerity and dictatorship. We end the year with the following article on the role of women during the Arab revolutions. This is an English translation of an article originally published in Correspondencia Internacional issue 30, November 2011 • March 2012.-SC


(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

By Malena Zetnik

The streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen— and even Bahrain— were crowded with the presence of women for weeks and months during the street protests and popular mobilization against authoritarian regimes. Women have played an active role, and in the process,  demystifying many existing stereotypes and giving a serious blow to the patriarchic system which prefers them to be ignorant, passive and submissive.

This new role of women must be understood as part of a new chapter that links them with women from past generations. 50 years ago, women and men fought side by side in the Algerian war of independence, in Palestine and then in Iran. Unfortunately, the consolidation of authoritarian regimes and the advancement of religious conservatives brought to the ground the measures of equality achieved by women.

But now, during the revolutions that are taking place in both Tunisia and Egypt, women have had since the beginning a strong and very visible presence. Not only did they take part in the distribution of food, shelter and medical aid; but they also played other roles such as conducting surveillance during protest, sustaining the tent clinics and even fighting hand to hand with the police. Women were important protagonists that made Cairo’s Tahrir Square a key element in the overthrow of Dictator Mubarak. They also founded the neighborhood and trade unions committees that organized both female and male workers. At the same time, they stood out for their role in distributing information by alternative means such as the blog “A Tunisian girl” ( by a young student from Tunisia, a country in the region that since 1956 has had a more secular, egalitarian society than the rest of the Arab world.

In Bahrain, during demonstrations against the Al Khalifa dynasty, women formed a huge crowd due to the effect of the traditional costume dress called abaya. There, men and women are forced to march separately. But this time around, women gave the marches more strength.

In other countries such as Libya and Yemen, women broke several social norms when they decided to march in public and speak directly in front of television cameras; they organized food distribution for the rebel troops and key intelligence tasks against Qaddafi in Libya. Until this day, women continue to play an important role in the Arab revolution.

Towards achieving equality for Arab women

The fate of Arab women is similar to that of many women in the world, where based on religious or traditional arguments, they are confined to poverty, social exclusion, ignorance and subordination to the world of men. For example, in Egypt, only 25% of women work outside the home and 42% are illiterate. Sexual harassment and the buying and selling of women are common facts of life. And while the political demands and slogans raised by women in each of these revolutions are not focused on advancing their own rights, the very fact that they are protesting in the streets shouting out their ideas and even fighting alongside their male counterparts, challenged centuries of social prohibitions and moral standards that are the foundations that sustain the current oppressive and exploitative regimes.

For example, when the Yemeni regime presided by Abdullah Saleh was challenged by social protests, Saleh attacked the women’s demonstrations by denouncing the mixing of sexes in the Tahrir Square mobilizations in an attempt to discredit the female protesters and tell them to stay inside their homes.

In Egypt itself, during the protests that began on January 25th, 2011, many of the female demonstrators denounced the sexual harassment to which they were subjected by both the police and the army. In the big demonstration on March 8th, following the police crackdown, dozens of women were captured and taken to a military base to be stripped, beaten, and subjected to genital inspection and filmed on the grounds of “confirming their virginity.” Furthermore, soldiers were allowed to observe and photograph these “inspections” with the aim to embarrass, humiliate and make those women return to the imprisonment of their homes. One of the objectives of the ousted Mubarak was to accuse them of being prostitutes since they were accompanied by men in the encampments and thus, put an end to the overwhelming presence of women in the streets which became a great component of the ongoing revolution.

However, the rights won by women are at a crossroads at this time. Undoubtedly, women gained new freedoms in the uprisings, but after the first few months of euphoria, attempts to normalize the political situation by those in power is translating into an attempt to “normalize” the situation of women, even when the dictatorships have been overthrown.

In Libya, the new president promised a government with female ministers and ambassadors at the same time he announced that the new legal basis for the country would be the Sharia-Islamic law which, among other things, bans women from smoking and traveling without the company of men. In Yemen, only 11 of the 142 members who initially formed the National Council of the Revolution are women. In Egypt, the threat still persists on some rights won through struggle under President Mubarak. The religious sector linked to the Muslim Brotherhood organization has announced that it intends to cancel the parliamentary quota for women. Therefore, the strength and depth of the processes started in late 2010 in the Middle East and North Africa depends on putting an end to centuries of oppression and achieving the freedom of women.



Saudi Arabia announces that women will vote in 2015

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently announced that for the first time, women can vote in local elections— the only existing in the country— and might even run for office. But of course, that is only in 2015. This was portrayed as a great democratic event by the regime.

For the U.S., Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly one of the main allies that sustain its foreign policy in the region. However, the self-proclaimed “guardian of the world’s democracies” ignores the fact that this country is ruled by a monarchy with absolute power that applies a strict interpretation of Sharia Islamic law which denies women the right to vote among many others.

In fact, women cannot leave their homes alone; their the right to work is restricted; women are not allowed to drive cars and they wear  clothes that cover head to toe and even have to be authorized by a man to have a surgery. And, in the meantime, the echoes of female participation in the revolutions of the Middle East are beginning to slowly resonate. In his speech to the Shura Council, a sort of parliament without legislative powers, the king of Saudi Arabia explained that women have played an important role in the history of Islam, so now they will be allowed to participate in that space. However, this is just one of many demands of Saudi feminist organizations and human rights who seek equality between women and men which remains far from happening at the moment. Without going any further, a few days after the announcement by the monarch, Shaima Jastina, a woman of 30, was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving her car— even though it later rescinded the punishment— and another woman spent nine days in jail for the same reason; both are members of the campaign Women2drives inspired by the democratic demonstrations in the region (Reuters, 2011). Although the king says the opposite, Saudi Arabia is not shielded against mass revolts.