Women’s Involvement Is Nothing New

When you google the possible variations of these words: Women, Role & Arab Spring, you will be faced with massive numbers of articles, studies and interviews that examine thoroughly women’s involvement in the Arab Spring. The prevalent sentiment of such works revolves around how it’s newsworthy that “Women played an active role during the Arab Spring” or “Women have emerged as key players in the Arab spring”.  What I read between lines is: It’s unbelievable to find you among the people who took to the streets! We know you exist in the society, but your participation in the public space had always been limited. We are surprised!

Women march to Tahrir on January 25, 2013. Credit Gigi Ibrahim

This theme has been widely tackled in both Western and Arab media, and if we can barely accept it from the former, it definitely is not acceptable from the latter. Why? Let’s take Egypt as an example, and allow me to take you to one of history classes that any average educated Egyptian has attended in their early school years. Nearly one century ago, there was a national revolution against the British occupation: what we call in Egypt the “1919 Revolution”.  Women’s participation in that revolution is a historical fact that is passed on, generation after generation. In my family, we know by heart the story of how my great-grandmother participated in the protests back then when she was a school student. It was an intense national wave in which everyone in the nation took part.  In fact, the emergence of the contemporary Egyptian feminist movement was one of the results of women’s role in that revolution. Women were active participants; this is old news. Now, unless we have a collective memory loss as nation, women’s role in the uprisings that sprouted across the Arab world since late 2010 should not be viewed as something weird or unusual, hence no need to discuss it in that sense to begin with. For this same reason, an interesting audio-visual project “HerStory” (a series of web based video interviews with a wide spectrum of Egyptian women) was established to “document the participation of women in the Egyptian Revolution (…) to remind history!” This is the same history in which our grandparents have extensively documented every aspect of women’s role in 1919 Revolution, but we have completely overlooked this fact, to the extent that we have a stack of studies analyzing why and how women took to the streets in our contemporary revolutions. It seems that history is ever forgetting.

In a society like ours (Arab in general and Egyptian in particular), if women dared to do anything unusual – this is almost everything outside the predefined roles and borders – they are always talked about as needing external intervention. In 2009, a new law was issued to guarantee a certain percentage of women’s representation in the Egyptian parliament, known as “Women’s Quota Law”. A measure that looks the outside democratic and enables women’s empowerment, but it also conveys another message: Women can’t make it to the parliament themselves. Let’s issue a law to help them!

Things have changed after the revolution – but not so much, unfortunately! The quota law was cancelled in 2011, but we still have this “women representation” condition in every single committee being formed for any national purpose. A couple of weeks ago, the presidency announced the criteria for choosing 50 members for a committee that will examine the suspended constitution. One of the criteria is, expectedly, to include at least 10 women in the committee. For your information: Women are an integral portion of the demographics of the human race (Egyptians included). With almost 50/50 percentages for both genders in the population and with very basic math, if you want to choose 50 people for a committee, at least 20 women should be chosen, unless you overlook women on purpose but claim otherwise by issuing a law or enforcing a criteria.

It’s dangerous to see a quota as a long-term solution, when what really needs to change are broader sexist social structures that are preventing some women from being able to participate. We also have to be clear that 10 members out of a 50-person committee is nothing to be proud of, and that fulfilling this quota shouldn’t be seen as a reason not to continue working towards something more equal. At the official level, there is a tendency to overlook women in the majority of state level positions, despite the fact that we don’t lack brilliant women who are capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of their specialties. The state has no genuine intention to include women, but they use these measures for cosmetically: “Look, we are good and progressive, we work for women’s inclusion!” If this is true, they wouldn’t have needed such measures and would have included women without the buzz of issuing a law or enforcing a criteria.

 “Women in Egypt exist in a protective system”; that’s how Mozn Hassan – the Executive director of a Feminist Studies center in Egypt - summed up the problem. According to this diagnosis, one can understand something like the statements of the head of the National Council for Women (NCW) in Egypt couple of weeks ago in which she criticized the use of children and women as human shields in the recent pro (legitimacy, Morsi, anti-coup, whatever you name it) sit-ins. For your info, the NCW is originally established to “propose public policy for society (…) on development and empowerment of women ..”. So, when the lady on top of that entity thinks that the women present at these protests are there only as human shields, she admits that women are incapacitated beings that have no will behind their actions, hence they only do what they do out of obligation. After more than two years of uprisings in which women were present effectively by their own choice, I find it shameful to claim those who were present in these sit-ins are merely there as human shields discrediting them of any authority over their actions. Of course, this statement is part of the heated political battle between the Islamists and the supporters of Morsi ouster by the military, in which such statements will stir no denouncements whatsoever, simply because the society acknowledges that women are to be protected. Accordingly, they have to abide by the predefined societal norms and don’t ever think of stepping out of the borders. Women who dare to cross these borders are looked at suspiciously, as weirdos!

It’s weird to be a woman and successful at your job at the same time.

It’s weird to be a woman and a techie at the same time.

It’s weird to be a woman and a politician at the same time.

It’s weird to be a woman and a surgeon at the same time.

It’s weird to be a woman and an adventurer at the same time.

The actress Meryl Streep summed it up: “No one has ever asked an actor, ‘You’re playing a strong-minded man…’ We assume that men are strong-minded, or have opinions. But a strong-minded woman is a different animal.” It looks like this is a universal problem.

  • http://hudasnomadicadventure.blogspot.com/ Huda Ahmed

    Excellent article, missed visiting the site and reading the many amazing works of you awesome ladies.

    I think anyone who is remotely informed about history, whether its Arab or Muslim movements/revolutions, would know women always played a vital role. What comes to mind is the Algerian revolution against French colony. I believe our media in the West plays a role in making Muslim or Arab women political involvement to be something abnormal due to the long held stereotype of Arab women and their public role, rightly or wrongly. I even remember reading so many resistance from Egyptian men against Egyptian women who wanted to be actively involved beyond street protest before Mubarak regime went down (whether it was the formation of political party, running for office or discussion over gender role and equity). Hence the legacy of Arab women political involvement have always been relegated to second class status because the main actors who make policies are often men who exclude women from the political table.

    In term of the current horrendous crisis in Egypt, there seem to be so much misinformation and propaganda from both sides of the political spectrum that its hard to decipher what is accurate news. Its tragic how a freely elected president was depose by the military regime after 1 year in office, being cheered on by Egyptians who could not calculate the fatal decision of supporting a regime that contributed to the economic and political demise of Egypt in the past 40 years.

    • YNiz

      Thanks Huda for the valuable comment.
      Speaking of colonization, check out this lecture http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QB7yaPM6xWo starting minute 3:45 she talks about a possible narrative that explains the role of colonialists in weakening women’s role in west Africa. A good point to ponder upon.


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