In Focus 91, Izzy Fox looks at the role women played in the Arab Spring and wonders what next for the women’s movement.
We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”, said one protester during the January 25th uprising in Egypt in 2011. Social media didn’t cause the Arab Spring, nor did it cause the London riots. The use of these social networking sites facilitated the organisation of protests, the build up of momentum and the rise of the citizen journalist.
Women activists played a significant role in the Arab Spring and in its aftermath, often using social media to highlight injustices or organise protests. From Manal al-Sharif’s campaign to remove the stigma, persecution and prosecution of women drivers in Saudi Arabia, to women protesting in Cairo in December 2011 against a young woman being stripped of her abaya and beaten in Tahrir Square by the military police, women have been seen and heard. However, at times, the lack of a visible presence of women protesters on the street was noticeable.
There are many reasons for this, and one which cannot be underestimated is the fear, based on previous experiences, of the sexual harassment of women during protests where they are significantly out-numbered by men. The humiliation of the “Blue Bra Girl” by the Egyptian military police resulted in the largest demonstration of women in that country since 1919. Can social media provide the platform from which to launch a Sisters’ Spring in the Arab World? Why not?
The video footage of the police’s treatment of the “Blue Bra Girl” has become a forceful symbol of the threat posed to women in the post-Mubarak military regime. Those who filmed and posted this video were savvy enough to realise the impact such an image could have, both inside and outside of Egypt. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, another Egyptian activist, highlighted the polarity of opinion on this subject in Egypt when she posted naked photos of herself on her blog.
This was not an act done lightly, as she labelled the photos of herself “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy”. These women have become synonymous with the struggle for women’s rights in the post-Arab Spring era. The fight for gender equality could be the next phase of the Arab Spring. In the aftermath of the euphoria and hope offered by the revolution, the neglect of women’s rights in the region has been exposed. Women are now calling on the new democracies to legislate for their rights and to have a political system which is representative of women. The situation of the women’s movement in the Arab world post- Arab Spring varies from country to country. In Syria and Bahrain the brutal crackdown on citizens by the government doesn’t offer much hope for civil liberties of any kind for dissidents, be they men or women. Conversely, in Tunisia, women’s rights have become central to the new government’s policy. In Egypt, the hope of a year ago hasn’t waned, but the realisation has set in that the struggle for women’s rights in that country has not been made any easier by the end of Mubarak’s reign. The military regime in Egypt allegedly subjected women protesters to beatings and forced virginity tests, among other acts of abuse aimed at humiliating and intimidating them into silence and inaction.
Dr Nihad Abu al-Komsan acted as Chairperson of the Council for Women for two months in the post-Mubarak government. The representation of women in parliament was less than it was during Mubarak’s time. As a result of this al-Komsan stated that “we have regressed by decades if not by centuries”, in terms of women’s liberation since the Arab Spring. Amanda Riggs, a Western woman who worked in Egypt for years, agreed and stated that her initial optimism “was crushed” as Egypt had already “rescinded the hard-fought quota for female representation in its parliament.” Since coming to power President Mohamed Morsi has also been criticised by women’s groups for reneging on his promise to be more inclusive and representative, as there are just two women in his government. Riggs’ wish now is for women to “fight for a new women’s movement” across the Middle East. What can social media offer to the women’s movement in the region? This is a question that is being addressed at a grassroots as well as at a political level. The inaugural Change Your World! Cairo 2012 summit, acknowledged, discussed and assessed how social media is being used by women activists across the Middle East and North Africa to affect positive social change. One of the issues examined was how women activists could “use technology and media platforms to support virtual communication without borders”. One success of the Arab Spring was how it seemed to pay little respect to national borders. Transnational feminism is a movement that seeks to emulate this and nurture a sisterhood of solidarity and support between all women, irrespective of nationality, colour, creed or class.
There are of course hindrances to the women’s movement within post-Arab Spring countries. Firstly, they face huge resistance from many of their compatriots, particularly from conservative religious groups but also from apparent allies. Elmahdy asks, in response to one of the prominent groups within the Egyptian revolution distancing themselves from her because she’s an atheist, where is the democracy and liberalism they preach to the world? There are other more practical obstacles to social media facilitating a women’s revolution in the region. Literacy rates are lower for women, particularly in rural areas and amongst older women, which of course inhibits widespread engagement with social media. Only around 17% of people in Tunisia had access to social media at the time of the initial uprising there, which seems to justify a cautionary reaction to the enthusiasm demonstrated by some champions of social media’s potential.
This is a valid point, but the effect that a well organised and motivated online minority can have on the population at large in terms of orchestrating protests should not be underestimated. Social media is a powerful weapon against oppression as it is effective not only in these logistical terms but also in grabbing the attention of the international community with a Facebook campaign, a YouTube clip or Twitter debate. Even though several images and campaigns concerning gender equality have gone viral, since the Arab Spring there has not been a sustained and united women’s revolution in the Arab world yet. The Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded last year to three women activists from the Global South. One of them, Tawakkol Karman, a journalist and human rights activist, received the accolade for inspiring the uprising in Yemen.
In her acceptance speech, another of the three women, the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s issued a rallying call to women “My sisters, my daughters, my friends: find your voices”. It will be interesting to see if social media can provide the megaphone to the Sisters’ Spring of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.
For more information check out the following links:
• Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Nobel lecture
• Manal al-Sharif’s Saudi women drivers Facebook page.
• The New Woman Research Centre in Egypt.