Commentary on Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring

—Myra Marx Ferree, Alice H. Cook Professor of Sociology Emerita, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Local Affiliate, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University

Below is a commentary presented by Myra Marx Ferree at the University of Texas book launch for Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring. Read another commentary on the book from Aili Mari Tripp here, and explore a piece by the editors of the volume here.

Over time, gender regimes have been changed by both the gradual transformations of political and demographic conditions and by the active engagement of women as challengers. This lovely collection by Rita Stephan and Mounira Maya Charrad highlights the voices of the challengers and their perspectives on what must change and how to create a democracy in which they are full participants. They have assembled an amazing diversity of standpoints from academia to activism, and from one state to another across the region. The multiplicity of styles in the writing and perspectives of the authors is stunning. There are collective poems, discussions of how to interpret graffiti, descriptions of activist leaders and their impacts but also essays considering the role of labor rights mobilizations, queer identity struggles, nationalist aspirations among Palestinians and Kurds, and service provision by organized religious women’s groups. WOW! The idea that the editors express of shattering the West’s illusion of homogeneity in the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called MENA region, has led them to unearth a staggeringly rich variety of women’s voices.  

Despite their diversity, there are a few common themes that emerge. One is the sense of women discovering who they are as individuals, people with their own hopes and dreams, and also a new recognition of their own personal strength to act on these feelings. Whether in the form of praise for education as unlocking unknown potential or as a story of the exhilaration of acting together in resisting sexual harassment or demanding regime change or as a personal account of how art or song or performance opened up their own minds as well as those of the others to whom it was addressed, all of the stories told share a feeling of discovering for themselves that as women their power has been unknown and untapped for too long.  

A second theme is that of solidarity in the pursuit of women’s shared identity as a collective. The power and hope unleashed in these moments of change also produce a commitment to telling the stories of the struggles of women who preceded them, the groups these women founded, the successes they booked in reforming laws at the national level, and the potential for sharing across the region the distinctive strategies and tactics they applaud. The category “women” is thus imagined not as the state would have it, as mothers and wives who are mere adjuncts to men and children, but as women themselves are making it collectively real in their relations to other women. Women’s groups not only serve as anchors for the discovery of individual potential, but also as doors to the reality of shared experiences, the dawning realization that there are many other women “just like me” who also do not fit into the stereotypes and who stand together against institutional barriers that feel personally crushing to individual women’s spirits.

A third theme is that of active citizenship, of being part of a nation that is struggling to find its way to make a state that will be free of the autocracy, violence, oppressions and exclusions that their nations have been experiencing. These voices say that openings for democracy are pregnant with possibility for women, but these voices also tell of dreadful abuses and both institutional violence and impunity. The desire to be citizens with full rights to participation in determining the future of the state that will govern them is articulated in so many different forms, from the claim to legislative representation in it to the resistance to violence in the movements to overthrow it completely. Despite the downward spirals into violence that have torn Syria and Iraq apart with such deadly consequences, the ideal of citizenship as respectful of difference and nonviolent in practice remains a commitment that spans the full diversity of women’s experiences with their states. 

There is finally also a theme of hope. By looking back on slow change and frequent repression in the past, the stories here also point forward with hope rather than resignation or despair. Whether the account is of painfully slow reform processes in Saudi Arabia, or of the destructive choice of the Syrian resistance to take up armed resistance, or the civil war erupting in Yemen, the tragic implications are also illuminated by the emphasis on how it could be otherwise someday. Women’s efforts to make reform are continuing even when the situation is deteriorating. Hope is flower that appears in the form of graffiti saying “no” to Syrian repression and to revolutionary violence.  

The Arab Spring of 2011 is a decade in the past already, and many of the authors are looking back from a place that they never anticipated being in when they engaged in social movements in this period. The stories offer not only accounts of the surprises that sometimes came next, for example, in the form of repressive dictatorship in Egypt and wars in Syria and Yemen, but also the ongoing developments in which the spring of 2011 was merely a minor punctuation mark in a struggle for democracy that began decades or more before and which is still being pursued today. The results of these less glamourous transformations, as with changes in the personal code that governs family relations, draw less Western attention but are shown here as part of a diversity of changes across the MENA region. Just as there was not one Arab Spring even though revolutionary energies flowed across borders in the region a decade ago, there is not one Arab winter now either, as women’s demands for individual freedoms, collective recognition, democratic influence and a non-violent future also circulate and sustain hope.    

Rita and Mounira, as editors, have emphasized the variety of experience and this is a huge contribution. But I also found the common elements important to stress. To be sure, these various stories are often told in the West with an erasure of national particularity and with a lens that only captures women as either collective victims or individual heroines.  But I also draw some other lessons from this exploration of the roots of and results for women in the various uprisings understood collectively in the west as the “Arab Spring.”   As a consumer of media based outside these countries, I read the coverage as primarily presenting the uprisings themselves as being a kind of classic liberal democratic claim on rights that is ungendered and irrelevant to women’s future status. Women themselves may be victimized, for example by mobs of men in Tahrir Square, and become symbols of oppression like the “blue bra woman” or be individual iconoclasts who share viral memes or take symbolic actions on their own account that the west can celebrate as heroic, but women’s rights as actually embraced by the women of the MENA region themselves remain outside the Western picture. 

The notion of “women’s rights” or “gender inequality” remains in Western eyes part of what “we” have and “they” need. This critique of western fantasies of “rescue” is familiar and apt, but tends to be too limited, focusing on such disastrous uses of the trope to justify agendas to “liberate” Kuwait, or the Kurds, or the Iraqis. The accounts in Women Rising tell a richer and more interesting story of how MENA women themselves note and resist the rescue mythology and separate their own claims from those of the feminist movements of both the West and of other parts of the global South. What MENA women want in relation to their own states reflects their own diagnoses of their own situations, which are not reflected in the struggles of Chilean claims for reproductive rights or Peruvian demands for recognizing indigenous women. In other words, it is not enough to “refrain from rescue” to hear the distinctive contributions of these women’s voices.

What I hear, listening to the voices Mounira and Rita have collected, is a strong focus on democracy as an unrealized political aspiration, whose achievement will take decades of struggle to either extend the inclusiveness of formally institutionalized democratic systems, or to introduce democratic governance as system into autocratic states.  As an American thinking a lot recently about our own country’s limitations in democracy, I hear these voices as a challenge to us to consider the links between democratic states and democratic family systems, between democracy in law and in practice, between democracy as a formal political institution and democratic access to participation in voting, in access to public spaces, and in representation.  I see MENA women challenging limits on their ability to “go public” in physical spaces and on-line and am reminded of the harassment that US women, especially women of color face, the deadly violence directed at people of color, and the embrace of guns and gun violence as an ordinary fact of life that is expanding here.  I am not only reminded, therefore, of the very bravery of the women speaking out in the MENA struggles but of the challenges US women face in claiming that their own democracy is not democratic enough.

Most especially, I appreciate some of the imagery in this volume that illuminates what democracy should be but does not yet offer in terms of partnerships and participation unlimited by gendered regulations imposed both by states and civil society. There is the metaphor of “coming out” as not just a matter of the work of LGBT individuals, but of all non-gender-conforming people, whether that gender non-conformity is wearing a hijab where it is not accepted or not wearing one where it is demanded, or appears among men who stand up publicly against sexual violence in their families or among their peers, or gender nonconformity of the type of making oneself visible as a single or married woman in a space defined as inappropriate for you.  The “coming out” image invoked across several of these selections is a terrific way of emphasizing the individual self-recognition and bravery of asserting oneself, but also stressing the rewards of discovering one is not alone, and the opportunities for collective action that “coming out” creates.  The connection between democracy as a system and women’s position in society is made explicit in many of the essays collected here, not just as a claim on the future but as part of what women are making as they “come out” as labor leaders, public speakers, bloggers and educators.  

As the diversity of democratic aspirations and practices make clear in this book, the Arab Spring is not an isolated moment but a piece of a long and complex trajectory of democratic reforms and resistances in which women have always played a significant role. As an internationally visible tip of a decade plus wave of reform movements and revolutionary uprisings, the Arab Spring revealed women as engaged citizens in a process of renegotiation with their states.  The popular will was crushed in some places, but has reemerged and been reimagined in very diverse ways across the region. 

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