If the upheaval in the Middle East has done nothing else, it has seriously challenged the image of Arab women as second-class citizens in a male-dominated society. In Cairo, Egypt, women joined men in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and several female doctors and nurses helped to staff the four field hospitals in the square. Even more striking because of their greater seclusion, young women in Yemen started the protesters' encampment at Sanaa University, in the nation's capital.
In Cairo and Sanaa, as well as in Tunis, Tunisia, and Benghazi, Libya, television coverage showed women wearing blue jeans as well as traditional black, mixing with the men in a collective outburst of yearning for change. “We — the girls — spoke with the media, arranged protests, slept in Tahrir Square,” Shehata, a young communications graduate, was quoted as saying. “Some of us got detained. So we went through everything our brothers [went] through.”
Says political scientist Alanoud Al-Sharekh, a Bahrain-based senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, “The traditional view is that Arab women remained in the background; a heavy nationalist movement with women in the fore means that this label can be removed: Women have gained legitimacy.”
And Gawdat Bahgat, an Egyptian-born professor of political science at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., says women's role in the demonstrations “begs the question about women in the Arab world. Women demonstrators were not demanding equal rights: They were shouting the same slogans as the men. They were part of the revolution.”
Even so, Nadje Al-Ali, a London-based author of studies on Egyptian and Iraqi women, warns against generalizing about the status of Arab women because the situation is different in virtually every country, and even between different social groups within the same country. “Middle-class women in Cairo probably have a better life than middle-class women in New York because they can get more domestic help and have more time to follow their own pursuits; it's the working-class women that have more problems,” she says.
Women, who have not traditionally been active in Egyptian politics, helped organize and participated in the massive protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. (AFP/Getty Images/Miguel Medina)
But can Arab women consolidate their gender gains? The first signs are not encouraging. On March 8, a large gathering of women in Tahrir Square to mark International Women's Day was heckled and taunted by a sea of angry men, who ultimately chased them off the square. “Go home and make mahshy [stuffed vegetables],” the men shouted, to the astonishment of the women. Some of the men even grabbed the placards held by the women — demanding a fair constitution, wide-ranging participation in government and an end to sexual harassment — and tore them to shreds.
Women were particularly disappointed that no females were included in the commission appointed to reform the Egyptian constitution. “Women need to get in there right away because there are some gender-specific issues in the constitution, and women need to be involved in reviewing them,” says Al-Ali. Some of the obvious legal inequalities include “getting rid of male guardians [which every Muslim woman must have], and reforming the laws of marriage, divorce and inheritance derived by interpretation of Sharia law,” she adds.
Under Sharia family law, for example, a woman's testimony is not acceptable in court. However, a husband can get a unilateral divorce simply by verbally repudiating his wife, but a woman must give justifications. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age — unless a woman has already lost custody by re-marrying. Sons inherit twice the amount as daughters.
But since 2004 Arab women's-rights activists have been able to point to Morocco, where family-law reforms overturned many discriminatory provisions. The minimum age for Moroccan women to marry was raised from 15 to 18, the same as for men; women are now allowed to marry without approval from a guardian; men can no longer unilaterally divorce their wives, and women were given the right to divorce their husbands. Men can still have multiple wives, but they must first get permission from a judge.
Although female followers of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were among the demonstrators in Cairo, the prospect of the Brotherhood playing what will likely be a significant political role in post-Mubarak Egypt raises fears among some Egyptians that the radical Muslim movement might find a way to impose Sharia law.
Al-Ali concedes that while women historically have taken part in revolutionary movements, “when [the] aims are achieved, women are often pushed aside.” Yet she is cautiously optimistic that this time Arab women will make some gains, but not to the same degree in every country. “Women in Saudi Arabia are starting from a different point from women in Egypt,” she says.
Laura Guazzone, a Middle East specialist at the Institute of International Affairs and an associate professor of Arab history at Sapienza University in Rome, is equally cautious in her predictions. “The presence of women in the demonstrations was a step forward; I would expect it to translate into a modest amount of liberalization in the national context.”
Even so, in Cairo, prize-winning Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif shrugs off nervousness about the Brotherhood's intentions. “Things can only get better,” she says. “This is not a Brotherhood movement, this is an inclusive movement, and when the time comes we'll sort it out.”
— Roland Flamini