ALLIANT INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY   Women and the Arab        SpringFreedom for half does not equal freedom at all         ...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allIntroduction       December 2010 marked the begin...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allduring the last year. Both countries have overthr...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allfor women that are not seen elsewhere in the Arab...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allparties…(including) Arab-Muslim identity {which} ...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allthe Ben Ali era reservations will prohibit discri...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allMubarak. There is one party in Egypt that values ...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allAfrica. The policies put into place here will inf...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at all           In her article “Muslim Women’s Rights ...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at alldistinct differences in financial responsibility ...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allcontinue to do so. In Tunisia things are continui...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allNasr, the key will be when “Muslim Democracy comb...
Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allReferencesAfary, Janet. The human rights of Middl...
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Women And The Arab Spring

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A brief discussion on Muslim women and the Arab Spring movement, the focus is on Egypt and Tunisia

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Women And The Arab Spring

  1. 1. ALLIANT INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY Women and the Arab SpringFreedom for half does not equal freedom at all Promise Monroe 12/23/2011
  2. 2. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allIntroduction December 2010 marked the beginning of what quickly became known as “the ArabSpring”. This was a monumental time in history, not only for those states involved, but theentire world, as everyone watched and waited to see how these courageous people would unite towin their freedom. Women were at the forefront of this revolution, fighting for not only theirrights as citizens but also their right to equality as human beings. One by one totalitarianregimesbegan to fall, first in Tunisia and then Egypt, Libya and soon perhaps Bahrain and Syria.With the dictator out of the way it became time for the citizens to rebuild their governments, butin some cases many are wondering if the women who made such an impact during the revolutionwill continue to have an impact in building the new government? According to some scholarsthe 21rst century has quickly become known as the “era of the gender wars”1. In the Middle Eastand many parts of North Africa, Arab-Muslim countries are fighting more than one revolution.Not only are all citizens fighting for freedom from oppressive regimes, but the women of thesecountries are fighting their own revolutions against the oppressive cultures men have createdover the years in the name of Islam. In her article, “The Human Rights of Middle Eastern andMuslim Women: A Project for the 21rst Century” author Janet Afary describes this gender waras “a reference to the bloody carnage that persists over who gets to control the women’s mindsand bodies in the new millennium” (Afary, 107). While this is not a new fight for these women,many hope that theywill be successful. This paper will focus specifically on Tunisia and Egypt, both countries have begun therebuilding process, and examples set here have the power to shape the future for other “ArabSpring” countries still struggling with revolution. Tunisia and Egypt have had similar paths1Afary, pg 107 1
  3. 3. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allduring the last year. Both countries have overthrown oppressive totalitarian regimes; both seekfreedom and justice, a more stable economy and better lives. Another important similaritybetween these countries lies in the religious faith of most of the citizens; both countries have astrong Muslim population and this is an important factor in rebuilding. During the last year therehas been much discussion as to what role Islam should playin the new governments. Thisquestion is important on many levels, but for the purposes of this paper, the focus will remain onhow the outcome will affect the progress of women’s rights in this region. Can democracy andIslamic law coexist? If Islamic law, or Shari’a, were to becomethe basis of the new governmentwill women be denied the rights they fought so desperately for during the revolution? This paperseeks to show it is not Shari’a that is oppressing women in these cultures, but instead theinterpretation of Shari’a by the male dominated culture. Looking at this issue from aconstructivist stance will show the power of the Islamic male dominated belief system that hasbeen embedded deep into Muslim life for generations. Through democracy it is possible to breakthe cycle; it is possible to be strong in your faith while also being free in your life.Tunisia On December 17, 2010 a young Tunisian man set himself on fire to protest the oppressiveregime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The young man, like so many others were fed up with thestagnant economy, abusive police and lack of freedom that the government supported. Thistragedy gave rise to a revolution that spread throughout the region. Tunisia’s people took to thestreets to protest and overthrow Ben Ali, within the month he had fled from the throne held forover two decades.2Under Ben Ali’s reign the government was secular and allowed many rights2 http://sarahalaoui.blogspot.com/2011/01/simplified-timeline-of-jasmine-tunisian.html this link offers a brieftimeline of the Tunisian revolution. 2
  4. 4. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allfor women that are not seen elsewhere in the Arab world. Women had access to education,contraception, abortion rights,and equality in marriage;they also had an impressive number ofrepresentatives in Parliament. While this all sounds very fair on paper the reality of life inTunisia is not the fairy tale it was made out to be, as many already know an education is no goodto anyone if there are no jobs, the case for most citizens, women especially. So it was nosurprise to many that women would lead the way in the revolution, “women played an active andvisible role as bloggers, journalists, Tweeters and demonstrators”.3 After the revolution hadousted Ben Ali, women expected their role as leaders to continue into the creation of the newgovernment.For many there was a sense of panic in the beginning as the majority of partiesseeking control were based on the principals of Islam, seeking to institute Shari’a as the basis forall governing. It was a valid concern for the women of Tunisia, would the revolution they had ledend up denying them the rights they already had? For months the majority party in Tunisia was Al-Nahad, this party had traditionallysupported the implementation of Shari’a as the base for all laws. The party had been outlawedunder Ben Ali, but in the months after the revolution was making a strong comeback. There wasmuch cause for women to be concerned about the direction of this party, whose leader had oncevowed to hang a popular feminist, Raja bin Salama. Her call for the new constitution to be basedon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights4 did not sit well with the leader. Luckilyhisviews did not represent all of Al-Nahad, in a report by news outlet Al-Jazeera, Al-Nahad’s newparty leader says, “I think some values which were values since independence are accepted by all3 http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kristine-goulding/tunisia-will-democracy-be-good-for-womens-rights4 This information comes from www.msmagazine.com while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adoctrine created by the United Nations and signed by most countries. 3
  5. 5. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allparties…(including) Arab-Muslim identity {which} is accepted even by the Communists. Andwomen’s rights are accepted by all sides, among them Islamists”.5 Tunisia’s other majority party is a secular party known as the Congress for theRepublic.This party also has an Islamic background, but believes that a balance between religionand government is the best policy. This party is also very vocal in the human rights arena, theparty leader and newly elected Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki is a well-known doctor andhuman rights activist who led the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights for sevenyears until Ben Ali forced him out6. This election proves to be the beginning of a bright futurefor Tunisian women; the President has vowed to safeguard women’s rights among otherimportant issues such as education and healthcare. It seems that Tunisia will continue to lead theway for Arab-Islamic countries in the field of women’s rights. It is a prime example of agovernment that supports Islam and also democracy. With only one year having passed since theoverthrow of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisian’s stay focused on accomplishing the goals of therevolution, recognizing that they cannot continue to grow if they leave half of their citizensbehind. While it still remains to be seen if women will get equal representation in the newgovernment7, they can hope that the trend set forth by the interim government will continue. Asof now there is a gender parity electoral law, “which requires equal numbers of male and femalecandidates”8 and also withdrawal of the key reservations held by Ben Ali’s government on the“Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women”9, this is a hugemove forward for not only Tunisian women, but for all Arab-Islamic women. The removal of5 www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/08/201181617052432756.html6 www.onislam.net/english/news/africa/454995-tunisia-secular-president-sworn-in.html7 This situation is changing on a daily basis, it is impossible to predict the outcome.8 www.hrw.org9 www.hrw.org 4
  6. 6. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allthe Ben Ali era reservations will prohibit discrimination of women in the family, education,healthcare and also outlines procedures for governments to follow to end all forms ofdiscrimination against women.Egypt On January 25, 2011 Egypt’s Tahirir Square quickly became ground zero for theEgyptian Revolution. In a situation emulating that of Tunisia’s revolution a month earlier, anEgyptian woman spoke out to the men of Egypt via a video posted to her Facebook page tofollow her lead and gather in protest against the tyrant Hosni Mubarak. Women were heavilyinvolved in this revolution, equally if not more than in the Tunisian revolution. They were in thestreets protesting, fighting Mubarak’s supporter’s day after day until he was removed fromoffice. They patrolled the streets when police were no longer there; they nursed the wounded,protested for the release of their husbands and sons, all of this in name of freedom. But thingshave changed quickly for the women of Egypt; there is little talk today about how they will befree, no one asking what they can contribute to the new government that is being constructed. Inthe interim government there is not one government representative pushing for women’s rights inEgypt. After Mubarak was overthrown many parties began to compete for the popular vote, thetwo most influential today are the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour; both are Islamic partiesthat favor Shari’a as the basis for the new government. The Muslim Brotherhood is somewhatmore lenient, but still favors strict policies towards the role of a Muslim woman in the Egyptianenvironment. Both parties also explicitly state that it will not be possible for a woman to ever bePresident of Egypt.10 This is troubling news for the women in Egypt, many wondering whatexactly it was they fought so hard for, many fearing they will lose the few rights they had under10 www.Allafrica.com/stories/201112161496.html 5
  7. 7. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allMubarak. There is one party in Egypt that values a best of both worlds approach, the Wasat, orCentre, party. Their views are “economically centrist and socially progressive” (Schipper,AllAfrica.com), they are gaining some popularity but it may not be enough. The politicalsituation will be closely watched by Women’s liberation groups both at home and abroad. Egypt is a male dominated culture and many feel that the woman should take her placein the home and leave the important decisions to the men. How quickly forgotten are thesacrifices made by the women during the revolution. The evidence of this is shown in the waythe interim government has shut women out of the proceedings. There is not even one womanon the committee tasked to rewrite the constitution, and there is only one woman, an easilycontrolled holdover from Mubarak’s regime, serving in the Cabinet.11 Another example of thepatriarchal culture that is shining in Egypt was the violent attack on 200 women who chose tocelebrate International Women’s Day. Instead of being met with praise for all their hard workthey were attacked and “told to go home and do laundry”12. This was only weeks after thesesame women fought side by side with men for Egypt’s freedom only to be immediately shunnedby their fellow citizens. Other move away from women’s representation in the new governmentwas the abolition of the 64 reserved seats that used to belong to the women of Egypt. Whilemany may say that these seats were only for show under Mubarak, saving those seats in a newgovernment could have meant elected women, women who actually represented the needs andwants of Egypt’s people. As with the situation in Tunisia, this is an ever changing story, every day presents newdetails and fresh chances for change. Egypt has long been a leader in the Middle East and for11 www.cnn.com12 http://hnn.us.node/138753 6
  8. 8. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allAfrica. The policies put into place here will influence other countries fighting for freedom,Libya, Syria, Algeria, Bahrain, all countries still fighting off the chains of oppression that haveheld them down for so long. The choices Egypt’s people make now will affect them long intothe future. The path they are currently on leaves many wondering if the women of Egypt willhave to pursue their own revolution, they have already proven they are capable of such a thing.It would be a shame for that to be the only choice, but generations of belief and behavior aredifficult to alter and Egypt’s has a long standing history as a male dominated culture. If theycontinue to manipulate Shari’a to oppress their women, to keep them bound to the home, theywill not be achieving freedom for the country. Not only will they be doing the women aninjustice, but also themselves, robbing their country and its future of potentially great minds.Islam and Women There has often been great debate about women’s role in society according to Islamicprinciples. Women’s rights movements are constantly focusing on the oppressive nature of whatthey believe to be practices taught through the Qur’an, their belief that Muslim women are forcedto wear the veil and full body robes, forced to stay in their homes. According to many scholars itis not the teachings of the Qur’an that are oppressive towards women, but instead the issue is inthe translation, a patriarchal twist that many Arab-Muslim countries have chosen to put on theseteachings. One of the biggest questions of the Arab Spring Revolutions has been what it willmean for women’s rights in this region;can the women keep their faith and also find freedom?For many Muslim leaders it is hard to believe that people can have progress and change and stillhold on to their deep spiritual beliefs, especially women. If these cultures take a more westernapproach to technology and women’s rights, will they be giving up the strong ties to familialvalues? 7
  9. 9. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at all In her article “Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges andOpportunities”, author Azizah Yahia al-Hibri responds to these questions from the view of aNorth American Muslim woman who has successfully integrated her religious life with her lifeas a modern woman. Her article focuses on the “misunderstanding or misapplication of theQur’anic text resulting from a cultural distortions or patriarchal bias” (Al-Hibri, 40). Al-Hibripoints out the clear distinction between the words written in the Qur’an, which every Muslim,man or women, must follow, and the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Arab-Muslim nations─the cultural aspects should be voluntary, unlike the religious aspect. This is an importantdistinction that most people do not make when formulating opinions about Muslims, women andequal rights. According to Al-Hibri this is where the problem lies, she says “Even today, manycountries that claim to be following Islamic law often use religion to justify repugnant laws thatare really based on custom” (Al-Hibri, 41). So what does the Qur’an say about women? Like Christianity, Islam also has a creationstory; it is here that the Qur’an first indicates equality between men and women. Unlike inChristianity where the woman is made of the man, in Islam both genders are made of nafs, whichtranslates in English as “the same”.13 Both men and women are held to the same standards andobligations when it comes to their worship and the Qur’an considers a woman to be an equalspiritual being. It is the topic of marriage where things seem to get blurry; this is the area whereculture and the Qur’an are getting confused with one another. According to Al-Hibri’s article, a Muslim women has the right to keep her own nameafter marriage, retain her financial independence, own property, and any money the woman givesto her husband should only be considered a loan unless she decides otherwise. There are some13 The word nafs is written on page 46 of Al-Hibri’s article, the translation comes from Google Translator. 8
  10. 10. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at alldistinct differences in financial responsibility between the two genders, but these are meant toprotect the woman not oppress her. Muslim men are always required to support their wives,daughters, sisters, any female relative;it is their duty as a man according to the Qur’an. From aConstructivist point of view it is easy to see how this rule can be manipulated to the man’sadvantage, using this financial power to oppress a woman instead of supporting her, inpatriarchal society the man would receive much outside support for this type of behavior andcould easily manipulate the words of the Qur’an to gain respect, power and obedience fromMuslim women. When it comes to matters like a women’s right to work, it is not against the Qur’an wordsfor a woman to work, she has a right to earn a living and as Al-Hibri points out14 the Prophet’sown wife was a working woman. Inheritance is another hot topic in Muslim households, theQur’an does give men the majority share of any inheritance, but it does so because, as waspreviously mentioned, men are expected to take on the majority of the financial burden. Theassumption is that the additional inheritance will be used to provide for the women of his family.Another false belief about the Qur’an is that it has sentenced women to a life of service for theirhusbands, constantly cooking and cleaning, waiting on men like slaves. This is another exampleof the ways in which a male dominated society has manipulated women into servitude, declaringit their religious duty to stay in the home. Azizah Yahia al-Hibri says it best, “it took over athousand years in some Muslim societies to prohibit slavery. We should not wait anotherthousand years to recognize the rights of women in Islam” (Al-Hibri, 58). The Arab Spring hasgiven Muslim women a chance to gain these freedoms; they have fought for them and will14 Page 49 9
  11. 11. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allcontinue to do so. In Tunisia things are continuing to progress, Egypt will be smart to followsuit.Conclusion In Tunisia and Egypt the majority of the work is just beginning. Creating their newgovernments will not be an easy task and they will need support from all their citizens. For themen in these societies it will be crucial to incorporate women into these proceedings. Theculture in this region is very powerful, and it will not be a simple task to curb beliefs that areolder than most could remember. This will be a challenging time for the women in all the ArabSpring countries, but it is a war that must be fought. This is an opportune time in history forthese individuals to take a constructivist approach to rebuilding. After all, constructivismteaches “that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather thanacquiring it.”15 This is the best approach for new beginnings, a time to make the cultural normequality and not oppression, a time to separate the true meanings of the Qur’an’s words from thepatriarchal interpretations. There is a whole new generation of men and women rising, thegreater good for all would be to teach them acceptance and supportof one another, these are basicprinciples of Islam. Every country must decide the best path for itself, it would be hard to imagine countrieswith strong Islamic ties, like Tunisia or Egypt adopting a Western democracy, but it is possibleto have both democracy and Islam in the same country, to have women be both mothers andleaders. In a study conducted by Professor Vali Nasr on “The Rise of Muslim Democracy”, hesuggests these same ideals as the most successful government for all the people. According to15 http://www.learning-theories.com/constructivism.html 10
  12. 12. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allNasr, the key will be when “Muslim Democracy combines the religious values of the middle andlower-middle classes with the policies that serve their economic interest” (Nasr, 18). Tunisia isslowly becoming an example of this, retaining its religious values but emerging as a democraticstate where everyone has a voice. As previously mentioned however, this is an ever-changingsituation and what is true today may not be true next month. The situation in the Arab Springcountries will continue to unfold over the coming year. This is truly an exciting time in ourglobal history; every day is a new challenge and a new opportunity to change the future. For thewomen in Tunisia and Egypt it is their time to shine. 11
  13. 13. Women and the Arab Spring: Freedom for half does not equal freedom at allReferencesAfary, Janet. The human rights of Middle Eastern & Muslim Women: A project for the 21rst Century.Human Rights Quarterly.Vol. 26 No. 1 February 2004. Pg 106-123.Al-Hibri, Azizah Yahia. Muslim women’s rights in the global village: Challenges and opportunities. Journal of Law and Religion.Vol. 15 No. ½ .2001. Pg. 37-66.http://hnn.us.node/138753http://www.learning-theories.com/constructivism.htmlhttp://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kristine-goulding/tunisia-will-democracy-be-good-for-womens-rightshttp://sarahalaoui.blogspot.com/2011/01/simplified-timeline-of-jasmine-tunisian.htmlNasr, Vali. The rise of democracy.Journal of Democracy.Vol. 16, No. 2. April 2005 Pg. 13-27.www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/08/201181617052432756.htmlwww.Allafrica.com/stories/201112161496.htmlwww.cnn.comwww.hrw.orgwww.msmagazine.comwww.onislam.net/english/news/africa/454995-tunisia-secular-president-sworn-in.html 12

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