Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring

—Aili Mari Tripp, Wangari Maathai Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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

Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad have edited a volume of 40 extremely rich insights into the different kinds of mobilization of women in the MENA region, especially around the Arab Spring.  It is a huge buffet of fascinating chapters on the many dimensions of MENA women’s activism in as many as 16 countries.

The book is a welcome contribution for those who research and teach about women in this region, but also for those of us who teach about global feminisms and women’s movements around the world, because it includes testimonies, narratives, interviews, as well as analytical pieces. It also brings to light the voices of people who are often not heard such as rural women and housewives. It provides a context for the Arab Spring by showing that women were politically active long before the Arab Spring.

As someone who researches women’s movements globally and especially in Africa, it is interesting to see the ways in which women’s mobilization in the MENA region contributes to global discourses on women’s rights and the new questions that can emerge from a study like this.

For example, the book does a great job in showing the heterogeneity of women’s mobilization. How do we make sense of non-liberal movements for gender equality and reform?  The 2014 Tunisian constitution is one of the most progressive constitutions for women in the world. As Mounira Charrad shows, this did not happen on its own. It was the product of advocacy and struggle by the women’s movement in Tunisia. Her chapter shows the struggle between feminists and those who wanted to incorporate

 the idea of complementarity into the constitution, thereby opening the door to illiberal understandings of equality and setting the country back from the gains it had made early on in 1956 when the Personal Status Code regulating family law was adopted.

These tensions between liberal and illiberal ways of thinking emerge in different chapters and open up interesting questions about how to understand women’s rights and women’s mobilization. So much of the international discourse has been a liberal one, yet we see women like Asmaa Mahfouz in Egypt through her cyber feminism producing a mix of Islamic feminism and secularism, as described by Samaa Gamie. And as Marwa Shalaby and Ariana Marnicio point out, women in the 2011 Bahrain protests were not calling for a Western model of democracy. Sana Sayed writes about women’s mobilization of Islamist women through the Syrian Qubaysiat Women’s Group and Syrian Sisterhood that come out of discordant discourses between the state and civil society. How do we understand these illiberal voices in the overall landscape of women’s mobilization?

How and why do certain moments in history generate alliances across religious, gender and class differences?  One of the interesting threads that is visible especially in moments of conflict is the capacity of women’s organizations to build alliances across differences. This is something I have seen in my work on women and peacebuilding in Africa, from Somalia to Liberia and South Sudan. Margot Badran writes about the continuities between the 1919 revolutionary protest and the 2011 uprisings. In 1919, Egyptians showed solidarity in protest between Christians, Jews and Muslims. Once again in the 2011 revolution there was the same show of unity across gender, class and religion. One was a protest against British colonialism and the other in defiance of home grown tyranny and despotism. Similar bridges were built in the Algerian Hirak anti-government movement in 2019-20, in which an unprecedented number of women of all ages and backgrounds participated.  Nadje Al-Ali notes a similar network of over ninety NGOs throughout Iraq with women activists of all ethnic and religious backgrounds involved in humanitarian assistance and lobbying. One might ask how and when do these alliances form?

Part IV highlights the importance of space and the movement of women into public spaces like the display of graffiti in the streets of Cairo that Soumia Bardhan and Karen Foss describe. Manad Jamal’s chapter shows how women claimed public space through a march for International Women’s Day in a Palestinian  village.

 What I find especially interesting is how important cyberspace has become for women activists in claiming public space. This has been even more true in the time of Covid-19. As important as it that women have claimed space in the Tahrir Squares of Cairo, Baghdad, Sanaa, and in front of the Grande Poste in Algeria, the book shows the extent to which cyberspace has also become a new public space claimed by women for blogging, mobilizing, creating apps, and organizing conferences.

This comes out as a prominent theme in the chapter about transnational mobilization through the Arab Women Solidarity Association United (AWSA United) by Rita Stephen, in the contribution about the Syrian Sufi blogger by Michela Cerruti, and the piece on the Lebanese women’s movement by Nelia Hyndman Rizk. Theresa Hunt writes about HarassMap in Cairo created by a women’s group in 2009 to gather data on harassment of women. Women could send a text, voice mail or email to report sexual harassment. They could vent their frustration and make epidemic levels of harassment globally visible.

The book gives rise to the question: How do quotidian protests interpolate with larger political protests? Amina Zarrugh writes about how women’s resistance to repression came out of their search for their loved ones who disappeared and were killed in prisons in Libya. They kept their memories alive through concrete everyday actions, trips, bringing packages to their imprisoned family members, and making inquiries about the disappeared. These actions served as resistance to state violence and sometimes led to  protests. We have seen the same kinds of actions by women in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Algeria during the Black Decade, in Syria and many other countries.  This article highlights such an important form of agency by women, yet it is often neglected in accounts of resistance.

In so many of the pieces we see the overarching question: What are the limits and possibilities for women’s rights in autocratic regimes? See this for example in Maro Youssef’s piece on Algeria. She found that her respondents believed that their continued activism at the grassroots toward gender equality is what drove the regime under Bouteflika to reform laws that previously prevented women from enjoying their equal rights. We see this also in Nadje Al-Ali’s superb reflection on women’s mobilization in Iraq.

One of the most interesting aspects of women’s mobilization in the region is the extent to which men are concerned with advancing women’s rights. This is evident especially in academic and activist conferences on women’s rights in the region. Fatima Sadiqi writes about this in her chapter on women’s studies at Fez University in Morocco. What she does not say is that she was a pioneer in developing the study of women’s status and rights in academia in Morocco and the region together with her husband Moha Ennaji. One finds in Morocco so many men who have written wonderful articles and books on women’s rights like Rachid Touhtou, Ilyass Boughazia, and Mohammed Yachoulti, who trained with Fatima Sadiqi. One might ask why the interest on the part of men? What does the issue of women’s rights represent to them?

Finally, the book explores various controversial issues that have mobilized women, like LGBTQ rights or women driving in Saudi Arabia (Namie Tsujigami). How do brave women launch these movements in the face of daunting state and or societal disapproval or even a reluctance by the women’s movement itself?  This is the focus of Amal Amireh’s chapter on LGBTQ groups in Palestine. Ginger Feather writes about the “Ne touche pas mes enfants” campaign in Morocco led by Najia Adib that helped break the taboo around pedophilia. As a result, she won acclaim from the Arab League, which appointed her ambassador for the Arab child.

This book is a tour de force of women’s activism in the Middle East and North Africa. The editors and authors have done a superb job in bringing these movements to light and showing us the varieties of women’s activism in the region. It will be an especially wonderful resource for students and others who want to learn about the many movements that have galvanized women and men in the region.

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