Having Their Say: Women Protesters Emerge as a Force in the Arab Spring

Defying authority and often braving physical harm, female protesters in Arab Spring demonstrations from Bahrain to Egypt have shown they are ready to speak out on public issues. Since the protests began early this year, these women have emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East — a development reflected in the decision to award Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman the Nobel Peace Prize this year. But it’s not clear if their rights will be strengthened, or possibly lost, in the wake of the upheaval.

Mary Hope Schwoebel, senior program officer at the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., tells Arabic Knowledge@Wharton that Western observers need to withhold judgment about election results following the Arab Spring, and focus on supporting the development of women’s rights in those countries. "You need to have secular feminists and you need to have Islamic feminists," Schwoebel says. "Women of all persuasions need to put aside their differences long enough to identify and advocate for their common interests in the face of rapidly changing circumstances."

Schwoebel holds a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University and a Masters degree in adult and non-formal education for international development from the University of California, Davis. She has conducted peace and conflict assessments and evaluations of peacebuilding missions around the world, including South Asia and in East and West Africa.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How have women played a role in the Arab Spring?

Mary Hope Schwoebel: First and foremost, they’ve been out in the forefront as demonstrators, as protesters. They’ve come out in unprecedented numbers in Tahrir Square [in Egypt] and in Change Square in Yemen. And of course, on the negative side, it was a policewoman who set the whole thing off in Tunisia. A street vendor being harassed by female police member in Tunisia reportedly triggered the Arab Spring. She slapped him several times on his face in front of his friends. The police had harassed him repeatedly for his business. He was so humiliated that he immolated himself. He went to Tunis and set himself on fire, just out of frustration because he wasn’t able to maintain his livelihood due to police harassment.

In Algeria, there was an interesting story about protesters comprised of feminists. They were feminist independence leaders from back in the day when Algeria was fighting against France. They were older, highly respected women. Oddly enough, they were arrested by female police officers, who beat them and then failed to protect them from male police officers who began sexually molesting and harassing them. Women haven’t always been angels, but women have played a significant role in the Arab Spring.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How important have women been? Would the Arab Spring have happened without women?

Schwoebel: Their participation in Egypt and Yemen has been key in the democracy movements, even the simple symbolism of their participation alone, was significant. It was a woman in Yemen, Tawakkol Karman, a human rights activist [a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize this year], who is credited for starting the Yemeni uprising.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do female protesters have a greater burden, not only demanding rights for citizens of their country but also rights as women in their country?

Schwoebel: Yes, of course, absolutely. It won’t happen without men also. Women are going to have to make the demands. Men won’t volunteer it. Woman will have to seize it in a lot of cases. When we talk about Islam and women and gender, what people tend to forget was that the Prophet Mohammed married a woman who was 15 years his senior, she was his only wife until her death. She was a very successful and wealthy businesswoman. She was a ‘liberated woman,’ in other words.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: That brings me a question about the Muslim Brotherhood, a leading opposition party in Egypt. How is their treatment of women?

Schwoebel: Both in Egypt and Yemen, those Islamic parties are not monolithic. The fact of the matter is there are factions and branches within them. There are lots of women in the Muslim Brotherhood and younger men in the Muslim Brotherhood who are articulate and forthright in saying, yes, women must be involved in the public sphere. Women must be involved in any new government. So they’re not all conservative.

The same goes for Yemen. The main Islamic party in Yemen is Al-Islah. It has two main branches. A conservative wing and progressive wing, and the latter wing has done a lot for women’s rights. For example, they’ve helped outlaw child marriage. We don’t need to fear Al-Islah as women, as feminists. And there are a lot of women members. It’s not an "either-or" proposition. In the West, we tend to fear Islamists. It’s not quite like that. In some of these countries, an Islamist government might be the only chance for peace. I’m thinking of places like Somalia or Yemen. Such a government might be the only rallying force to bring the factions together.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Because of this time for change, there might a window for women to demand more equal rights.

Schwoebel: There is definitely an opportunity for women. Or let me say, there was when the uprisings began.

Tunisia is great. Women have had rights for a very, very long time. Tunisia’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba, had a European wife. [She was the first lady from 1957 to 1961.] Urban, upper-class women, in particular, have enjoyed rights unprecedented in the Muslim world. Even the exiled Islamist party in Tunisia, Ennahda, has said they won’t roll back the rights that Tunisian women have. [Women have had a right to vote in Tunisia since the 1950s. They have also had laws to eliminate early marriage and domestic violence is criminalized.]

Egypt has led the Arab world in terms of feminism in many ways. There are a number of very prominent Egyptian feminist leaders. They have led the way in terms of legal rights for women. But there is a massive gap between educated women in Cairo and women in the countryside. Egypt is very diverse — different cultures, tribes and identity groups — so it’s not equal across the board. I worry now about the situation in Egypt.

First of all, women seemed to have lost ground in the formation of the 18-member ruling military council. Egypt didn’t put women on that ruling military council. The military is moving to consolidate power in Egypt. And unfortunately, when you have military regimes, women always tend to lose ground. Women don’t predominate in the military so they get squeezed out of the public sphere. Military and patriarchy go hand in hand.

That’s why in Latin America, women are the ones that have led the democracy movement during the epoch of the military dictators. Democracy and women’s rights go hand in hand. Therefore, women’s progress depends on what kind of progress the entire democracy movement makes.

In Libya, there is only one woman in the transitional national council. In Yemen, women have come the furthest during the Arab spring relative to their situation prior to the upheaval. Out of the all the countries involved in the Arab Spring, Yemen was the most conservative in terms of the gender divide. Most Yemeni women had never been the forefront of public life like they were during the demonstrations. The women are saying, ‘Now that we’re here, we’re not going to go back. You can’t push us back.’

What worries me is that if Yemen descends into a violent civil war, which is where it looks like it’s heading, that will be disastrous for women, because when you have insecurity like that, the gun rules. And women don’t usually carry guns. So chances are women will stay in their homes just because they’re afraid. Rape is a weapon of war used actively these days. Women will do whatever they can to avoid putting themselves in harm’s way.

This is something we found in Somalia. Women there were really liberated by the standards of Muslim countries before civil war. But as the civil war went on and on women covered themselves more and more. They don’t go out anymore. They live in virtual purdah [concealment]. This was not a Somali practice before the civil war. When you have massive insecurity, women always lose ground.

But there have been times in which the war did create a space for women. One was during the UNOSOM (United Nations Operation in Somalia) period. Granted, it was only the elite women, those who spoke English and were educated who benefitted. These women formed NGOs, in order to capture some of the international assistance money coming into the country. This led to their getting representation in a series of national peace processes. A lot of that definitely had to do with pressure from the international interveners, who were committed to ensuring that women had a seat at the table. Some women remained prominent even after the international intervention ended. We have seen this happen in Iraq and in Afghanistan as well.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In the Algerian revolution for independence from France, which took place from 1954-62, women played an important role but were relegated to marginal roles after the revolution. How can Arab women ensure they are not marginalized again?

Schwoebel: It has just happened in Egypt. It’s not just Arab women. This also happened during and following the World Wars in the U.S. Whenever there’s a peace process and you’ve got two opposing sides, women’s rights are one of the easiest things to trade off. This is especially true in some of today’s conflicts in Muslim countries, where you’re dealing with conservative Islamist elements and secular elements. It’s tempting for secularists to trade off women’s rights during the negotiations. It’s an easy concession to make.

Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, did it. He made a concession to the Islamists and agreed to legislation that allowed for marital rape. This is why we need women at the peace table. That’s why there’s so much noise about having women involved in transition and post-conflict processes and in constitution writing. You have to have women involved in those processes. And you have to have a critical mass, not just tokens. It’s not that women are more inherently peaceful, but that they will speak up for their rights during negotiations.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How has cyberspace provided a role for women in the Arab spring, especially when women haven’t always been allowed in public spaces independently?

Schwoebel: I think it’s incredibly liberating. I’m on Facebook myself. I have many friends from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Egypt, and other Muslim countries. Women who live in purdah are on Facebook. They may not show pictures of themselves, but they will show pictures of their children or photographs of flowers or landscapes. And increasingly, young women are showing their pictures. It gives them a voice. They can speak in a public venue. Of course, we know that Facebook and Twitter, especially in Egypt, were used to organize the revolution.

I talked to a Yemeni woman who had been living in Change Square. Before government snipers shot people in Change Square, women were out there. Every segment of the Yemeni population was there: Tribal leaders, Islamists, civil society, Northerners and Southerners. She said that it was the first time that all segments of society were able to mix in that way. And it was certainly the first time that women had been able to be in public in that way. But she said that there were a lot of tensions with the extremely conservative Islamists who started making a lot of noise about the women being in Change Square. But the women held they ground. They didn’t leave.

Interestingly though, there was an April speech by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh [stating that women shouldn't be out protesting in the public sphere]. After Saleh’s speech, Al-Islah, the Islamist party stated that women have a right to participate and to demonstrate. They have a right to appear in public as part of the democracy movement. Both the Islamists and the women were angry that Saleh had used religion so cynically. And although Al-Islah may have been more motivated by opposition to Saleh than by support for women’s rights, they will not be able to retract it easily.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Saleh then pointed out that Al-Islah Party, an Islamist political group, was encouraging women to protest against him when women were not allowed inclusion in other facets of the party’s organization. In a way, it’s a good question. How does opposition paries support women in the protests and will they change the role they allow women in the new government?

Schwoebel: Al-Islah Party has a more progressive branch, which is pretty much out there right in front for women’s rights. But the conservative branch would not support women’s rights. So there’s a split in the Al-Islah Party, which is Yemen’s biggest opposition party.

Two months before the uprising, USIP and a local NGO, called NODS (National Organisation for Developing Society), brought together 35 women from all over Yemen. Some of the women were very conservative and others were very progressive. The founder of NODS is an Imam. He’s also an Al-Islah MP. He is very famous because he led the movement to end child marriage. We were conducting a training and dialogue workshop to facilitate women to understand their roles in generating conflict and also their roles in building peace. When we started, they said, ‘No, we don’t contribute to conflict. We don’t contribute to building peace. We don’t have power.’ But by the end of the workshop, they were saying, ‘Yes, absolutely, we do contribute to conflict and we play a big role in building peace.’

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think seeing female role models on Al-Jazeera, the Internet, and other media outlets encouraged women to take a role in the Arab Spring?

Schwoebel: Just as the Arab Spring has a domino effect, I see that women’s participation in the Arab Spring has had a domino effect. And it is important to keep the women’s rights agenda on the screen — literally and figuratively.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Tunisia is the first country in the Arab and Muslim world to call for a gender parity stipulation, meaning that there has to be 50% parity between men and women on electoral lists. Does the parity requirement work to the benefit of women and why? Is there any backlash?

Schwoebel: It is commendable, but it may not go far enough. It simply means they have to be on the electoral lists, but it doesn’t mean they will necessarily be elected to public office. And it’s doesn’t guarantee that if women are elected that they will necessarily be women who will support women’s rights. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Women in Saudi Arabia just got the right to vote in 2015. Do you think this evolution was a result of the Arab Spring?

Schwoebel: Saudi Arabia is the most conservative country in the region in relation to women’s rights. The media is saying that women were given the right to vote in order to prevent an uprising in Saudi Arabia. I don’t know if that was the reason or not. But it is not the first indication of change in that country. Not long ago, a male member of the royal family had his photo taken with a group of women. This was a symbolic gesture, even if it was a small gesture.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Tell me more about the female Egyptian presidential candidate, Buthaina Kamel. Is she a viable candidate?

Schwoebel: She herself said she didn’t think she would win but she didn’t think that was the point. She thought it was more important for other women to see that a woman could run for the presidency. She wanted to demonstrate that if a woman could run in this election, maybe a woman can run and win in the next election.

One of the issues in the constitutional reform process was that women lost some legislation. They’re not well represented in the Egyptian transitional government. People tend to equate loss of women’s rights with the Muslim Brotherhood but I don’t think the cause is solely or primarily due to the Brotherhood. The longer the military are in power, the more ground women will lose.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Will women in the Arab Spring aspire to model themselves after Turkey in their home countries?

Schwoebel: Turkey is similar to Egypt, in that the lives of women in cities and the lives of women rural areas are very, very different. Turkey may have gone too far the other way. For example, Turkish women aren’t allowed to cover their heads in some situations like working in public-sector jobs. That’s going to create a backlash. Is that progressive? I don’t think so. In fact, in Algeria during the civil war, women, who had not previously covered their heads, including feminist women, started wearing the veil as a symbol of their opposition to French colonial rule. Women’s veils became a symbol of nationalist aspirations.

Women’s clothing all over the world has been used as a symbol of national, ethnic and religious identity. In many countries, women wear indigenous clothing; men wear Western clothing. It also comes down to how you define liberation. For me, I don’t think what you wear has much to do with it. I think we tend to focus too much on the veil issue.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What can women to do ensure they will have equal rights in the future?

Schwoebel: In countries where conservatism is taking hold right now, one of the most important things that women can do — and that we can support them — is obtain a high level of religious education, especially in Islamic jurisprudence. Without it, women will never be in a position to negotiate for women’s rights with conservative Islamists.

Often, women believe that if they are going to promote feminism and women’s rights, they have to promote secularism. But in the course of doing so, they lose that chunk of their constituency who worry that supporting women’s rights is synonymous with being against Islam. In deeply conservative countries like Yemen and Afghanistan and Somalia, but also in countries with Islamist movements, women must have the religious knowledge and the religious credentials to talk about what Islam says, and does not say, about women’s rights and women’s roles.

But there is a need to have different approaches simultaneously. You need to have secular feminists and you need to have Islamic feminists. Women of all persuasions need to put aside their differences long enough to identify and advocate for their common interests in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

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