Media images of the uprisings which swept through North Africa and the Middle East during the 2011 Arab Spring protests, conjures images of scores of young men, their faces covered in kaffiyehs (or traditional Arab headscarves), stones in hand and with angry expressions, confronting the Arab world’s security forces.
However, the involvement of Arab women in the respective revolutions has not received the same publicity. Yet they were at the forefront and deeply involved.
In Yemen, protests were sparked by the arrest of 32-year-old Tawakul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Chains. In Egypt, 36-year-old Amal Sharaf, an English teacher and single mother was one of the organisers of the April 6 Youth Movement
“They took part in demonstrations and sit-ins, participated in intellectual debates, acted as human shields and disseminated information,” said Lilia Labidi, a visiting research professor from the Middle East Institute at the University of Singapore.
Labidi was one of the guest speakers at a panel discussion on the role of Arab women in the Arab Spring protests, to mark International Women’s Day at Unisa University in Pretoria last week.
A number of prominent speakers took part at the event, which was a joint initiative of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the UN Development Programme South Africa.
The UN’s participation was part of its Women Training Programme for Effective Participation & Leadership Roles within Governance Structures.
Labidi was one of the leaders of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and served as the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the transitional government of Tunisia in January last year.
“Asma Mahfouz, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman has been called the architect of the Egyptian revolution,” Labidi told the audience. “She created a YouTube video calling on Egyptians to take to the streets and resist the regime of ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
“Women were especially active in organising civil disobedience against the Arab regimes and this was a key element of getting the masses out on the streets. Women from all backgrounds and without affiliation to any particular political party, and without shouting any specific political slogans, took part.
“Few people know that the history of feminism in Tunisia goes back 100 years. The height of Tunisian women’s emancipation took place in 1986 when the personal status code was passed.
“All forms of discrimination against women were lifted and this was supported by the majority of Tunisians who forced the state to implement change. Women were represented across the spectrum of society.”
But Tunisia’s relatively enlightened society gave women rights even earlier. Women had access to contraception since 1962 and abortion since 1965 – eight years before the US’s famous Roe v Wade case.
After independence from France in 1956, the government abolished polygamy and legislated women’s equality in marriage, divorce and child custody.
Later, a minimum marriage age of 18 was established, as were penalties for domestic violence. Still, daughters could inherit only half of what sons could, and a husband could hold property a wife acquired during marriage. Nevertheless, these conditions were light years ahead of many Arab countries.
However, following the Algerian revolt against French colonialism, where women fought and died alongside men, as soon as independence was gained, their “revolutionary brothers” sent them back to the kitchen.
“Following the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisian women have been concerned that the same scenario could arise again, especially in the light of the fact that most Tunisian political parties were not prepared to put women’s rights at the top of their agendas,” Abidi said. “So this is something we have to guard against as we build a new society.”
Feminist Raja bin Salama, a vocal critic of fundamentalist subjugation of women, called for Tunisia’s new laws to be based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
She was denounced by Rashid al-Ghannouchi, exiled head of the Islamist party Ennahda, who vowed to hang her in Tunis’ Basij Square. He has now returned to Tunisia.
Khadija Cherif, former head of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, guarantees women will continue to defend separation of mosque and state, saying: “The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we’ve never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society.”