Women in Revolutions : Paving the Future

We have seen their pictures, we have seen them shout and demand and support and lead the popular movements that have arisen throughout the Middle East : middle eastern women have utterly and truly proven that they were a force of the revolution. Though they have endorsed many roles within the group of demonstrators, it is also interesting to study the scale of their participation and what awaits them in the future. Are women being instrumentalized by the revolution, soon to be sent back to their kitchens as soon as the uprisings are over or are we witnessing change at all levels, including regarding women’s rights and women’s roles within society? Are women going to be taken into account when rebuilding their countries, claiming their rights to be on the negotiation tables as artisans of the revolutions along with their male counterparts? 
Many pictures and testimonies can be found on the roles women played and are still playing within the crowds of demonstrators that have shaken regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya.
Women in revolution and resistance undertake different roles: they can be those in charge of disseminating information, both digitally and on site with other demonstrators, as they’re relatively less harassed by governmental police than men (as indicated by some testimonies and tweets from young women who were arrested in Egypt then released while their male counterparts were still being held and questioned, an additional form of dividing the population[1]), they can also be the ones tending to the wounded and taking care of the mere logistics of the revolution, like distributing water and food or they can also be at the forefront of the battle,  carrying weapons and throwing stones, shoulders to shoulders with the men. Even before the current uprisings that are currently taking place in the Arab World , there was a long standing “tradition” of women playing a pivotal and key role in political turmoil, such as women fighters within the Palestinian struggle, or the resistance against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon during the civil war: “Our Women are fighting the Israeli’s Occupation with sticks, stones and boiling oil”[2]. Women not only play a central role during conflicts and uprising, but also during post-conflict situations, as was the case for example in Africa in Liberia, where women organized themselves in order to force the men who were negotiating the end of the civil war. Their activism was based on vigils, mobilization, protests, symbolic dress and never ending activism for an increased and equal role of women’s organizations in peace-building efforts, leading to a high number of female voters in the post-war elections, paving the way for a change in mentality.
Reading testimonies of women who were at Tahrir Square in Cairo, it appears quite clear that women felt safe and empowered, in accordance with the spirit that prevails on Egypt’s now most famous square “There was a sense of coexistence that overcame all of the problems that usually happen – whether religious or gender based.”, says Mona Seif, a young 24 year old activist[3]. However, Mona also underlines the problems that usually came with taking part in demonstrations before the revolution that started on January 25th “Pre-January 25 whenever we would attend protests I would always be told by the men to go to the back to avoid getting injured and that used to anger me.” Her sentiments is echoed by other women who all had a hard time convincing their families of their right to go and demonstrate, families who were too worried about the risks their daughters, mothers and sisters might have been running on Tahrir. Most women who were on Tahrir agree to say that they did not suffer any kind of harassment from the men, that everyone was sleeping next to one another without any case of violence against women being reported. Something that often came back was there seemed to be a country within Tahrir and a country outside. Nevertheless, women did report cases of harassment on the day Mubarak left, when people “who did not care about the revolution”[4] entered the square.
In Tunisia, women were also vocal and instrumental in the revolution that brought Ben Ali down, demonstrating in headscarves, bare heads, jeans or Islamic dress, in  their judge or lawyer robes[5]. Furthermore, Tunisian women remain very aware and lucid about their future in the post Ben Ali society, already thinking ahead on the need to maintain their existing rights and build on them for further gender equality: “The force of the Tunisian feminist movement, says Khadija Cherif, long-time feminist activist, is that we’ve never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society. We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.”
Women in Libya have also braved the terrible and horrific repression by Gaddafi’s thugs and mercenaries to chant anti-government slogans, taking their children with them to brave the wrath of the megalomaniac dictator[6]. Libyan women also took the little opportunity they had to be online to use social media to leak solidarity chants to encourage Lybian women living in other cities, such as this slogan sent to the women of Benghazi “To every Libyan woman, this is your day, your pride, your victory over this tyrant…you are half the population…There is no difference between us and Egyptian women, and Tunisian women.”[7]
A common feature of the women’s movements within the revolution is that, contrary to the terminology used by most western media, women do not seem overly concerned by the possible political participation of the Muslim Brethren. Indeed, contrary to what mainstream media tries to portray, Arab women are not “submissive” because some of them wear scarves, and fully understand that their revolutions were popular grassroots movements that were not high jacked by any political party, nor will they allow these movements to be stolen by any group, Muslim Brotherhood or other. Indeed, their demands as women are linked with broader demands of equality and social justice, respect for their human rights and solidarity within society.
In this context, it is interesting to wonder how and why patriarchy is still the norm in most of Arab countries, with most of them supporting discriminatory laws towards women. After all, these are not the first acts of resistance, revolutions and uprisings that the region encounters and in which women partake in, yet the societal and political changes induced by these upheavals did not entail long lasting behavioural changes in terms of gender equality. First of all, it’s worth noting that the precedent coud d’états  and upheavals and changes of governments have not brought equal rights for all citizens in countries of the region, hindering from the start efforts to reach gender equality, as there is no equality to begin with when a small percentage of the population gathers all the wealth while the vast majority is left to struggle for basic needs and rights. Besides, it is tremendously important for women to capitalise on and leverage the exceptional circumstances that prevail during an uprising and abolishes gender barriers in the fight towards a common enemy. As Anu Pillay has noted “conflict can provide women with opportunities to break out of stereotypes and stifling societal patterns… If women seize these opportunities, transformation is possible. The challenge is to protect the seeds of transformation sown during the upheaval and to use them to grow the transformation in the transitional period of reconstruction”
In other words, revolutions might ignite the spark for societal change under special circumstances, but if nothing is done to keep that spark and that drive going, people fall back in their same ways and forget their behaviours and the roles women played under times of tension. Hence, following Trotsky’s call, there is a need for a permanent revolution until a state of social justice is achieved, thus creating an appropriate environement to allow women to fulfill their roles in society, enjoy their full rights and work hand in hand with society as a whole to break discriminatory and conservative social norms.
What the recent revolutions might have changed though is the (re)discovery that women had a voice and that they will not keep silent in the future whenever hardships and harassment befalls them, as they have discovered that solidarity and speaking out are possible and that they will find partners of both genders willing to support their struggle for equal rights and fair laws.


[1] http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/4914.aspx “At a point the microbus slowed down and I could see that it had parked in front of the back door of the ruling National Democratic Party’s head quarters. It seemed like they were waiting for orders as to what to do with us. Eventually the bus moved, and went to Tahrir Square, which had been taken over by police last night, and there we were transferred – one by one – to the big blue van that carries prisoners. At that point, a police man came and said, “No women, Take the men and leave the women!”
[2] Shaaban Buthaina, Both Right and Left Handed, Arab Women Speak About their Lives, Indiana University Press, 1991, p. 92, Um Mohammed Biadoun’s testimony
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