The Arab Woman and her Dual Struggle: Feminism in the Middle East

Lena Gahwi is a Third Year International Relations and Women’s Studies Student at the University of Western Ontario, and has served as a Columnist of The General Assembly since its inception in October 2017. Her areas on interest are Feminist International Relations, human rights, and the democratization of developing nations. She can be reached at lgahwi@uwo.ca.

Women’s central role in the Arab Spring, and how this changes nothing.

Content warning: mention of rape, and sexual harassment.

The mind is an embodied mind, our thoughts and beliefs are shaped by the location we reside in and the people we have found ourselves surrounded by. Women in the Middle East face a unique struggle, one shaped by the intrinsically patriarchal nature of their culture, and one perpetuated by constant political instability. With the recent Arab Spring and frequent revolts across the region, Arab women have had the opportunity to become leaders in national movements and participate in the reshaping of Arab politics. However, despite the strong involvement of women in these uprisings, there has been little improvement when it comes to women’s rights.

This peculiar phenomenon is well documented across the world, and is unsurprising to most feminists. Historically, women’s rights are rarely placed at the forefront of major political uprisings. For example, the usual rhetoric would fall along the lines of, ‘women’s rights are important, but not as important as…’. This blank can be filled by anything, such as the ousting of a political leader, or challenging the government’s corruption. It is assumed that once political stability is achieved that women will finally be able to access the rights they aspire for.[1] However, as reality makes it increasingly clear, this is not the case. The danger of this thinking is that women’s rights are seen as separate from the overarching political climate, and more importantly as a less important issue. Furthermore, despite rigorous involvement in political revolts, women often find themselves performing ‘women’s work’ in the revolutionary effort, such as cooking and caretaking. The issue with the gendered nature of roles in uprisings is that in a post-revolutionary world, when women seek out leadership positions, they are seen as less qualified than their male counterparts because the role they took on during the revolution fails to fit the prerequisites of a leader. Their contributions to revolutionary efforts are systemically undervalued and disregarded.  

Women in the Arab Spring took up their rightful place as leaders of the revolution. They were a big part of the organizing and strategizing efforts. However, what is perhaps the most disappointing outcome of their involvement is the clear indication by their male counterparts that they were not welcome in the public sphere. In her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, Mona Eltahawy tells the story of a woman that participated in the Egyptian Uprising in 2010. This woman recounts the time that she was protesting alongside thousands of people in Tahrir Square, when police began tear gassing the protestors. As she was running away from the gas, a man protesting with her began groping her. This story perfectly explicates the complex experiences of Middle Eastern women. As women were sexually assaulted and harassed at the protests by other participants, the Egyptian state was simultaneously using invasive and especially vulgar tactics to punish women protestors. Another story that Eltahawy cites in her book is one of a protester that is violently raped by an officer using the legs of a chair. Arab women cannot properly trust the men they are working with nor can they have faith in the state. They are perpetually reminded that so long as they leave their home and attempt to be part of society, they will be treated as objects that both men and the state have a right to. More importantly, they are placed in the unjust position of having to choose which battle is more important. However, the reality is that both struggles are consistently endangering their lives. For them, neither is more important and both must be eradicated. Even in a perfect world where an authoritarian regime is toppled and the people seize power over their country, women will open their eyes to an equally dangerous world, where their bodies remain to be seen as public property, and their experiences are disregarded.

The site of failure for many of these uprisings is that the female experience is not taken into account.  Women are the backbone of the Arab Spring, they worked on creating it and sustaining it, but they do not reap the necessary benefits from it. In many cases the post-uprising governments treat women even worse than before. In an effort to improve their lives, women have actually moved backwards.

This is not to say that women in the Middle East are passively accepting their fate. Women are front and centre throughout the many uprisings in the Middle East, and they continue to demand a more just and safe society. Equity is a process, and one that women in the Middle East are consistently choosing to keep alive.

[1] For more about women’s rights and revolution read Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics