Unlike their fellow male citizens who focused on the political struggle against autocratic regimes, Arab women engaged in three parallel struggles in the political, social, and legal spheres to secure their freedom from dictatorship, misogyny, patriarchy and injustice during the Arab Spring uprisings. In so doing, many of them resorted to social media tools to advance their causes and fight these battles, using multiple forms of resistance and online activism, a phenomenon that has come to be commonly referred to as “cyberfeminism.”
Many observers have viewed Tawakkol Karman’s Nobel Prize as a nod to the Arab Spring movements, in general, and a special recognition of women’s active roles in these movements.
Their exemplary heroism captured international media attention and won the admiration of the international community, culminating in the selection of Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni journalist and activist who came to be known as the “Mother of the Revolution in Yemen.” She became the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Many observers have viewed the award as a nod to the Arab Spring movements, in general, and a special recognition of women’s active roles in these movements.
This acknowledgment is especially important because Arab women are traditionally subjected to three layers of invisibility. First, in the socio-economic sphere, where most of their contributions are taken for granted and much of their labor goes unnoticed, because it is informal, undocumented, and unpaid.
Second, in the academic world, where they are marginalized and given scant attention in scholarly studies and research.
Third, in the media where they are mostly underrepresented, or misrepresented, overly marginalized, or overly sexualized.
Eight years after the eruption of these uprisings in the six countries which witnessed them, however, the realities on the ground varied widely, and so did the status of women. Libya has become stateless and torn by sectarian strife. Yemen is consumed by a civil war made worse by foreign interference and leading to the collapse of its weak infrastructure and the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Syria was engulfed in the worst civil war in modern history, resulting in a massive refugee crisis. Egypt fell under a military dictatorship far worse than that of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, in terms of stifling freedoms and human rights abuses. And the Bahrain uprising also was crushed and came to be known as the “Forgotten Revolution.”
Tunisia alone emerged as the success story of these uprisings, thanks to its small size, minimum foreign intervention in its internal affairs, as well as the dedication, hard work, and coordination of its civil society actors, and its high literacy rate of over 90%—unlike most Arab countries, which suffer from high illiteracy rates.
Tunisian exceptionalism extends beyond the political sphere into the social domain, as Tunisian women set new standards of activism.
Tunisian exceptionalism extends beyond the political sphere into the social domain, as Tunisian women set new standards of activism. One remarkable example was the passing of a groundbreaking law which combats violence against women. This historical 2017 law has been hailed by feminists and activists for its comprehensiveness and holistic approach to tackling the issue of violence against women, by defining it as any attempt to harm women, whether physically, sexually, economically, socially, or politically. It expanded the definition of “violence” to encompass both the private and public spheres.
Another triumph for Tunisian women was the repeal of the infamous “Marry Your Rapist” law, which enabled a rapist to escape legal punishment by marrying his victim. Both of these legal victories were emulated in other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, two non-Arab Spring countries, which began issuing new laws to protect women’s rights.
Tunisia’s success story, politically, socially and legally, teaches a number of important lessons for the rest of the Arab region, in general, and for women’s movements, in particular. Beside the significance of education, there is also the importance of successful coalition-building. These achievements would not have been possible if Tunisians were not able to bridge the gap of their differences across their varying ideological positions and political orientations, which ranged from liberal secularism to conservative Islamism, with many variations in between.
In sharp contrast, the setbacks in the transition towards democratization and reform in the rest of the so-called “post-Arab Spring countries” led to dire consequences for their citizens. Women especially experienced arrests, repression, harassment, rape, exile, trauma, and the loss of male supporters and breadwinners.
Countless Syrian women were negatively impacted by the horrific humanitarian disaster and faced new harsh realities as widows, orphans, impoverished refugees, and/or rape and harassment victims.
One example is the Syrian civil war, which resulted in a massive refugee crisis. Countless Syrian women were negatively impacted by the horrific humanitarian disaster and faced new harsh realities as widows, orphans, impoverished refugees, and/or rape and harassment victims.
Even those who fled the repressive Syrian regime, in the hope of exercising their activism and opposition in exile were not safe, as the tragic murder in Istanbul, Turkey, of Syrian opposition activist Orouba Barakat, and her daughter, Halla Barakat, a journalist who worked for the Syrian opposition channel Orient News TV, sadly proves.
In Egypt, since the military takeover that brought General Sisi to power in 2013, human rights have deteriorated significantly, with an estimated 60 thousand political prisoners, including both male and female activists, opposition figures, journalists, bloggers, and ordinary citizens. In addition, many have forcibly disappeared and others were executed.
On September 20, 2019, sporadic protests erupted in different parts of Egypt, which were described by some Western media outlets as rare and shocking, prompting a harsh security crackdown and massive arrests. Among the more than 3,000 people arrested were key political figures, opposition leaders, activists, journalists, and bloggers, as well as average citizens.
Some of the imprisoned activists included prominent female opposition leaders, such as lawyer and human rights activist Mahienour El-Masry and leading democracy and human rights activist, journalist and blogger Esraa Abdel Fattah, who was one of the iconic opposition figures in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. She was allegedly subjected to torture and harassment during her imprisonment, leading her to undertake a hunger strike.
Whenever there is a deterioration in human rights in a given country, women are most likely to suffer the most and emerge as the primary victims.
The picture that emerges from the ongoing turmoil in the Arab world shows that the issue of women’s rights can never be separated from the broader issue of human rights. Whenever there is a deterioration in human rights in a given country, women are most likely to suffer the most and emerge as the primary victims.
Indeed, Arab women’s activism with all its complexities, contradictions, manifestations, and implications, can only be understood in the context of the socio-economic, political, and cultural setting of each respective country.
Just as most of the so-called “post-Arab Spring” countries are currently undergoing periods of transition and tribulation, the status of Arab women in these countries and the future of their activism remains equally uncertain.