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The unfinished gender equality revolution of the Arab Spring Open in fullscreen

Sahar Khamis

The unfinished gender equality revolution of the Arab Spring

Women have been at the forefront of popular protest movements in the Arab world. [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 March, 2021

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In-depth: Arab women played a pivotal role as activists, organisers and leaders during the 2011 uprisings, but a decade later the promise of greater gender equality remains unfulfilled.
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A decade after the Arab Spring uprisings, which were filled with remarkable examples of heroism, activism and sacrifices by Arab women, the derailment of democratisation in most Arab countries, with the exception of Tunisia, has taken a heavy toll on women's civic engagement and political participation.

While the revolutions initially offered new opportunities and created political spaces for Arab women as agents of change, the breakdown of the popular uprisings has also compounded older challenges and obstacles.

Amid a second wave of popular protests across Arab societies, there are still future possibilities for hope in the struggle against enduring authoritarianism, with Arab women playing a pivotal role.

Dual struggle, double trouble

In sharp contrast to the misconceptions and harmful stereotypes about the helplessness and passiveness of Arab women, they played remarkably prominent roles during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, both online and offline. 

Most importantly, they were not simply playing traditional gender roles, through supporting men. Rather, they were on the frontlines of resistance movements, exposing themselves to the dangers of arrest, harassment, and death.

Women played prominent roles during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, both online and at the forefront of popular movements

The remarkable examples of Arab women as key players in the uprisings reflect the "dual struggle" in which they were engaged in through their activism, in both the political and social spheres. On one hand, they were fighting alongside fellow male citizens to resist dictatorship and autocracy. On the other hand, and in parallel, they were also fighting to empower themselves socially and resist repressive structures in highly patriarchal societies, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence, professional discrimination, honour killings and female genital mutilation.

Following the setbacks on the road to democratisation and reform - from civil wars in Syria and Libya to humanitarian crisis in Yemen and a more repressive military dictatorship in Egypt - the brunt of economic, political, and social hardships fell mostly on the shoulders of Arab women, with many becoming displaced and impoverished refugees, single mothers, and widows, or, even worse, political prisoners and exiled activists. These unfortunate outcomes only added to pre-existing conditions of marginalisation for Arab women, exacerbating their underprivileged status.

Read more: The many faces of Arab women's activism

The dual socio-political struggle by Arab women to resist multiple forms of repression on several fronts during the uprisings gave birth to the twin troubles of bearing the burdens of not only the new wave of political repression but also the backbreaking social and economic toll. 

Despite these harsh realities, there have been positive examples of persistence and success, such as Tunisia's groundbreaking law against all forms of gendered violence, coupled with the increased engagement of Tunisian women in politics. In a sense, Arab women are oscillating between two poles; one of trauma and resistance and the other of triumph and tribulation.

The double-edged sword of social media 

One important tool which Arab women successfully weaponised to advance their cause and fight these parallel battles was social media, which in traditional and conservative communities opened new windows to the rest of the world through which their complex realities and multifaceted struggles could be fought and seen.

However, this new phenomenon of online feminist activism, or cyberfeminism, according to Bahraini journalist and researcher, Nada Alwadi, was "very much a double-edged sword for many Arab women activists. On one hand, it provided a crucial platform for them to amplify their voices and to publicly articulate their demands. On the other hand, by enhancing their public visibility, and boosting their celebrity status, it made them vulnerable targets of regimes' retaliation and persecution."

The derailment of democratisation has taken a heavy toll on women's civic engagement and political participation

This also reflects a more general context of escalating digital authoritarianism in the post-Arab Spring era, whereby autocratic regimes have sharpened their "cyberactivism" tools to chase after opponents, suppress them, sabotage them, and silence them, sometimes permanently, using the very same digital tools which were deployed by their opponents to resist them. This tug-of-war between autocratic regimes and dissidents, which has risen significantly in the post-Arab Spring era, is endangering all activists who dare to speak out against their repressive regimes.

The struggle of Arab women journalists

While much of what has been written on Arab women during, and after, the uprisings focused on their role as activists, in both the political and social spheres, it is equally important to pay attention to Arab women journalists, and their continuously shifting roles and struggles in the aftermath of these movements.

Aside from gross human rights abuses, which have resulted in the arrest of a number of prominent Arab women activists, such as Egyptian lawyer Mahienour El-Masry and Egyptian blogger Esraa Abdel Fattah, among others, Arab women journalists have also faced regime retribution and harassment.

Read more: Sudan's revolution and the broken promise of women's rights

New "Cybercrime Laws" were introduced in a number of Arab countries during Covid-19 under the mantle of fighting misinformation, disinformation and rumours but have instead stifled freedom of expression and put the lives of journalists who challenge the government's narrative of the pandemic at risk. 

Many journalists have been arrested under the charges of spreading false information and threatening public safety and social peace. One example was Egyptian journalist Basma Mostafa, who was previously detained for investigating the killing of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Egypt in 2016, and was detained again twice in 2020, once for investigating the death of Egyptian citizen, Ewis al-Rawi, and another time for reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In 2020, Nora Younes, the founder and Chief Editor of Al-Manssa news website, which has been blocked since 2017, was the first journalist to be detained and charged with cybercrime violations under the new 2018 "Cybercrimes Law," for her journalistic work. Meanwhile, Lina Attallah, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Mada Masr, another blocked website, was detained outside Tora prison for attempting to interview the mother and sister of detained blogger and journalist Alaa Abdel Fattah.

A toxic mix of legal, political, professional, and social constraints makes it extremely difficult, and many times impossible, for Arab women journalists to do their job safely and properly

"I couldn't think of a riskier and more dangerous environment for women to practice journalism than that which is prevailing in the Arab world right now," Salma*, a veteran Egyptian journalist who had to quit her job due to mounting political and professional pressures, told The New Arab. "This toxic mix of legal, political, professional, and social constraints makes it extremely difficult, and many times impossible, for Arab women journalists to do their job safely and properly."

Second wave, new hope?

Despite the prolonged challenge of authoritarianism there are also positive signs of hope across Arab countries, reflected by the second wave of uprisings which erupted in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon in 2019 to demand freedom, dignity and justice, echoing the popular demands which swept Arab Spring countries in 2011.

Read more: Tunisia's rocky path to democracy: Fighting
to advance the hard-won freedoms of the revolution

Although these movements have not yet led to radical changes in the ruling regimes, they have nonetheless illustrated the power of mass mobilisation, networking and coordination, facilitated by the role of social media. 

Most importantly, Arab women have played significant roles in this second wave of uprisings, not just as organisers and participants, but also as leaders and role models. In Sudan, for example, young women bravely led protests that toppled President Omar al-Bashir after thirty years in power, attracting international media attention and global praise.   

The fact that many of these young Arab women relied on social media to amplify their messages and to support their causes, replicating the reliance on social media during the 2011 uprisings,  gives birth to new hopes that a combination of online and offline activism by Arab women, coupled with the vigour of youth movements and popular mobilisation, could usher in a new dawn amid the dark cloud of authoritarianism, which still hovers over an ever-changing region characterised by unfinished political, social, and gender revolutions. 

*Name has been changed to protect their identity

Dr Sahar Khamis is Associate Professor of Communication and an Affiliate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Maryland. She specialises in  Arab and Muslim media, and is a public speaker and radio host.

Follow her on Twitter: @Skhamis

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