The Arabic word for revolution, thawra, has a female gender. So does the word ’huriya (freedom), and so does the word intifada (uprising).
Like many other young women, I was captivated by the uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa last year. The moment was a poignant one for Arab feminists. Though few outside the Arab world know it, women’s radicalism in the region has long and deep roots that span more than a century. As the uprisings unfolded across the region, this legacy was there for all to see. Women stood not only in defiance of brutal dictatorships, but also cultural norms that many times encouraged, and in some cases enforced, women’s exclusion from the public sphere.
There is much anxiety about women’s rights in the transitions that have followed the uprisings, particularly when it comes to Egypt.
Yet, the euphoria following Mubarak’s fall had barely subsided when disturbing reports began to surface. In Egypt, women who had gathered in Tahrir square to commemorate the first international women’s day following the revolution, were, as Hania Sholkamy has reported “attacked, harassed, ridiculed, shouted down and ultimately chased out of the square.” In the months that followed, women protestors would be arrested and subjected to virginity tests, intimidation, and trial by military tribunals. In Tunisia, the future of the country’s famously progressive laws that safeguarded women’s rights was suddenly uncertain. As Deniz Kandiyoti wrote in June, questions on the prospects for gender justice post the Arab-Spring uprisings “are receiving increasingly disquieting answers.”
I don’t think men hate us per se. I think they just don’t understand us, or historically were not allowed to understand us. Maybe it’s to do with the education system in the Arab world; we are taught to memorize things. And what you memorize from watching [others] everyday, is what you do, and what you copy until your daughters and sons do it all over again.
In Paris, Yalda Younes decided enough was enough. Conscious that social media had played a critical role as a mobilizing tool in the uprisings, she decided to utilize it in support of Arab women’s struggles for equal rights. The goal of the Facebook page was not to simply raise awareness; it was also to create a platform for solidarity with women activists, who may have felt isolated in their individual struggles all over the region.
The premise was simple: post a picture of yourself that starts with the phrase, “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because…”, then fill in the blanks. The photos began trickling in. Soon, the site was inundated. The page’s membership grew exponentially- from approximately 20,000 at the beginning of the campaign, to close to 80,000 today.
Despite the positive reaction to the campaign, it has not been free from controversy. Lebanese Activist Diala Haidar reported on her Facebook page:
I was blocked by Facebook for 24 hours because I posted Dana Bakdounes photo on the Uprising of Women in the Arab World page. The photo was removed after being heavily reported by misogynists and Islamist extremists.
Like hundreds of young women and men all across the Arab world and beyond, Dana Bakdounis, posted her photo to the online campaign, The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’s Facebook page. Holding her passport and a hand-written message along with a defying stare on her unveiled face, she boldly states: “I’m with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel wind in my hair and body.” But on the morning of October 26, 2012, Facebook removed Dana’s photo and has blocked the administrator of the Facebook group who posted the photo from posting anything for 24 hours. The picture was taken down by Facebook because the social network had received complaints. The photo was allegedly reported as being “insulting.”
While the image of women participating in last year’s Arab uprisings has been repeatedly used to provide a narrative for the Arab uprisings, the outcome of what was dubbed the “Arab Spring” did not turn out to be that positive for women.
“I am just as good as you are!” half of Arab society is screaming at the other half. The movement known as The Uprising of Women in the Arab World has launched a virtual campaign urging people to champion what they call “male dictatorship”. And in so doing, they would be completing the Arab Spring.
Women have been on the front lines of the revolutions that have swept the Middle East and North Africa, often fighting for the freedom of their country at the same time as they battled the conservative attitudes of their fellow protesters.
In Egypt, women hold 2 per cent of parliamentary seats in comparison to 12 per cent in the previous elections, and not one woman took part in the committee that wrote constitutional amendments. In Yemen, a report by the international NGO Oxfam states that women are worse off after the revolution in a country where a humanitarian crisis keeps growing. In Tunisia, a woman who was allegedly raped by policemen was in turn accused of public indecency when she filed a complaint.
We don’t need anyone to feel sorry for us. We are proud women. We are resilient and defiant. We are fighters and survivors. We are the successors of thousands of brilliant women activists who have paved the way for us. We come from a long history of resistance: resistance to imperialism, occupation, and our own dictators. Resistance is nothing new to us. Battling patriarchy is just one other round. We are the future, the hope, the whisper of tomorrow. We carry the unborn children of this world, and the promise of a better generation. We are the change and a change is going to come…
Under dictatorships, gender inequality is too often seen as an unimportant detail in comparison to the big picture. In many revolutionary movements, marginalized individuals such as women and minorities are first offered hope for change, then end up facing the same discrimination after dictators have been toppled. They are told to wait, to be patient, and that their time will come.
This is wrong. Women’s rights are at the heart of human rights, therefore any pro-democratic claim simply cannot side-line half the population. Change for the better must be change for everyone, or it will ultimately be change for no one.
This campaign certainly deserves our support. Islam will not become a safe religion for anyone until Muslim women are free to live their own lives, and here are some women who are determined to fight for their freedom.
May your morning be an uprising.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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