Tomgram: Shahin and Juan Cole, The Women’s Movement in the Middle East

Linked on our blogs with TomDispatch.com. – Published on TomDispatch, by Shahin Cole and Juan Cole, April 26, 2011.

Against all odds, they just keep tottering. I’m talking, of course, about the autocrats of the Middle East: first, Ben Ali of Tunisia, then Mubarak of Egypt, now Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. After two months of demonstrations in the streets of Yemen’s cities, after the defection to the pro-democracy forces of key elements of the country’s military, Saleh has seemingly agreed to go within 30 days – though whether it’s a real offer or a political maneuver remains uncertain, and whether that offer, including immunity from prosecution for him and his family, is acceptable to the demonstrators is also an open question … //

… An Arab Spring for Women, the missing story from the Middle East: …

… Giving Women a Fighting Chance:   

The Arab Spring has proven an epochal period of activism and change for women, recalling the role of early feminists in the 1919 Egyptian movement for independence from Britain, or the important place of women in the Algerian Revolution.  The sheer numbers of politically active women in this series of uprisings, however, dwarf their predecessors.  That this female element in the Arab Spring has drawn so little comment in the West suggests that our own narratives of, and preoccupations with, the Arab world — religion, fundamentalism, oil and Israel — have blinded us to the big social forces that are altering the lives of 300 million people.

Women have been aided by this generation’s advances in education and the professions, by the prominence of articulate women anchors on satellite television networks like Aljazeera, and by the rise of the Internet and social media.  Women can assert leadership roles in cyberspace that young men’s dominance of the public sphere might have hampered in city squares.

Their prominence in the labor movements and at the public rallies in Tunisia and Egypt, moreover, underlines how much more of a public role they now have than is usually acknowledged.  Even the trend toward wearing a headscarf among women in Egypt during the past two decades has been seen by some social scientists as a step forward.  It has been a way for women to enter the public sphere and work outside the home in greater numbers than ever before while maintaining a claim on conservative ideals of chastity and piety.

Women activists of the Arab Spring have come from all social classes, since it has been a mass movement.  Middle and upper class women often focus their political energies on issues of political representation and on laws affecting women’s equality.  Seeking constitutional guarantees of electoral parity is one possible way of responding to any patriarchal political backlash.

Working class women are particularly concerned with wages and workers’ rights.  Stronger unions would improve women’s prospects for greater rights.  Women’s health, literacy, and material wellbeing are concerns of all women.  During the age of the dictators, the nation’s wealth was often usurped by a narrow elite of politically connected families.  A democratization of politics could potentially lead to more state resources being devoted to women and the poor.

Keep in mind that women such as Buthaina Kamel knew the risks when they called for Mubarak to step down.  Whatever their patronizing appeals to feminist themes, authoritarian regimes like Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s politically oppressed and stole from everyone in society, including women, and they had proved increasingly unable to deliver the social services and employment on which women and their families fundamentally depend for a better life.  Before, women could be marginalized at will by the dictators whenever they made demands on the regime.  Now, at least, they have a fighting chance. (full long text).

(Shahin Cole holds an LL.B. from Punjab University Law School in Pakistan and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.  His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website
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