Freedom. Respect. Equality. Dignity. These are the values of the Arab revolutions at their core. The issues that incited the 2011 uprisings stemmed from the frustration and anger of every day men, women, and children being denied rights and ignored. People had hit their limit, tired of fighting for few jobs and enduring low wages, tired of harassment and unfair treatment, tired of regimes and dictators who had ruled for too long, at the expense of the country’s people and their well-being.
It was the actions of several remarkable individuals that inspired thousands more to make their voices heard. Across the globe, we felt a shared sense of pride swell as we watched men, women, and youth from all walks of life come together in the streets and beyond, as brothers and sisters, members of a larger national fabric, for a common goal. It was a cherished moment in history, setting forth a national identity above all other distinctions and demanding for each citizen a better life and future. And it proved to all of us the power of ordinary men and women to inspire change, the power of one voice to galvanize a movement that swept from city to city, nation to nation.
For women, what the uprisings especially demonstrated was our equal role in the fight. Women in many ways led the revolution, from Asma’ Mahfouz and her Youtube video call to action to Tawakkol Karman who led protests against former Yemeni leader Saleh. Women were as instrumental as their male counterparts in the uprisings, leading protests, organizing and mobilizing, treating the wounded, and policing the neighborhoods that had come under attack. They fought as mothers, daughters, leaders, and martyrs, sacrificing in the hope of achieving progress, in paving the way for a future better than the every day life they were enduring. They proved their equality through their bravery and courage, their persistence and fortitude, their hope that their collective voices could bring about change.
As the revolutions reached their height and long-standing regimes—from Tunis’ Ben Ali to Egypt’s Mubarak to Libya’s Gaddafi—fell, it seemed that there was finally a space for equal human rights—despite of gender, class, or any other division. However, the result was beyond disappointing, the backlash against women crushing in its hypocrisy.
In the transition, women were not only isolated, but attacked. Their experiences included:
- Exclusion from key committees: not a single woman was included in the constitutional committee in Egypt; only one female was included in the National Transitional Council in Libya;
- Violence: from reports of virginity testing and violence toward women protesters (infamously, the “woman in the blue bra” case) to the aftermath of abuse conducted during the uprisings
- Proposed cancellation of hard-won freedoms: in Egypt, the Islamist-led assembly ignored key issues such as the economy. Instead, its focus was an attack on laws won under Mubarak dealing with custody and divorce; in Tunisia, a female Islamist MP suggested that single mothers do not deserve to be protected by the law and instead, the law should avoid condoning such behavior.
Women were being pushed out of the discussion at every turn, and their role in peacemaking and decision-making was largely marginalized. Prior to the elections in Egypt, the 64-seat quota won under Mubarak was eliminated. A new law required that each political party field at least one female candidate. Those who ran struggled with finding visibility and sharing freely their beliefs and images. On ballots, political parties replaced women’s faces with the image of a flower. In the end, only eight women—less than two percent—were elected by voters, with four of them representatives of conservative parties.
In Karama’s work, we have faced increased risk, struggles, and setbacks, but we have also seen how this new environment has fostered unique opportunities and partnerships. In Libya, women from all walks of life came together to launch a new coalition, the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace. Together, its members convened to establish shared priorities, discuss and exchange strategies and extract lessons from regional and international experts, and develop and implement national action plans to respond to risks and opportunities in the transition. They lobbied for women’s political participation and after a quota for women was rejected by the National Transitional Council, they were able to push through an alternate electoral law, which set forth the requirement that women be included on political lists in alternating slots both horizontally and vertically. As a result, women make up 17 percent of the new assembly and hope to have a larger role in the writing of the new constitution.
In Yemen and in Syria, where the situation remains chaotic and violent, Karama seeks to foster a similar model of linkage, training, and exchange. Preparation for the transition is key, and this is where Egypt and Tunis were caught off guard, unable to predict the sudden backlash women would experience under new leadership. Partners in Yemen have come together for a series of strategic communications seminars in preparation for elections and advocacy. In Syria, we are working to link partners, and strengthen these coalitions to act quickly and decisively on issues of security, peace and reconciliation, but also with regard to women’s participation in these processes.
The environment has been turbulent and unpredictable, and at times dangerous. However, the work continues. Women and men all across the region are poised to fight and are persistent in their efforts to lobby for and promote women’s inclusion, advancement, and security in the post-revolution context. But they are also aware that strategies need to be altered and new approaches must be incorporated in order to achieve their goals.
Among the new challenges, one of our greatest is the rise of conservative leadership in decision-making roles. In Egypt, Tunis, and Morocco, Islamist parties won the majority of votes in post-revolution elections for new assemblies. Already, there has been debate over imposing more conservative laws, limiting the freedoms not only of women, but also of any presenting views outside of a very restrictive interpretation of Islam. While it seems impossible, we must find a way to engage these politicians and find areas of common understand or mutual interest. We cannot lobby for women’s rights in isolation of new governments and parliaments, and thus must find a way to work with them while advocating for women’s priorities and interests.
At the same time, we must also broaden the constituencies of support we rely upon to advocate and lobby for women’s inclusion. Youth leadership was especially prominent during the uprising, from organization of protests and rallies to use of social media to build awareness of what was happening on the ground. We must invest in training and bring youth into national, regional, and international dialogues to introduce new perspectives and engage new constituencies in the movement.
Beyond this, we must remember the importance of including men and boys in this work, as well as addressing the broader communities within which this advocacy is ongoing. It is only with community involvement and support that reforms will be effectively implemented and sustainable into the long-term.
Above all, we must remember the goals set forth early in the uprisings and continue to work toward them. Democracy is impossible without women’s equality and inclusion and until these are achieved, we will not stop fighting.