The Arab Spring blossoms hope for the future of Middle Eastern women, says Rhea Tabbara


As snowfall and a bitter winter struck the Western World last 2010, the first piece of the Arab Spring’s canvas was being strung together by a patchwork of different socio-political uprisings and demonstrations hitting the Middle East. Witnessing the departure of unwanted despots in Tunisia and Egypt, and currently observing the struggle to replicate the procedure with the Syrian and Libyan dictators, the Arab Spring has proven itself as a strong political movement just as it has demonstrated itself as an even greater social movement.

Driving, one of the many rights Saudi Women are denied

The world has been surprised by the ever-growing role of women in this symphony of events. Not only have they maintained their traditional role of homemakers, but they have also embraced tasks formerly undertaken only by men. Kept on the sidelines of major events for the longest time and stirred up by the desire to be a part of history and the ability to mold their own future and destiny, what can we hope for these 21st century Middle Eastern suffragettes?

Could the expansion of their freedoms and liberty lead to more social reform? Could the Arab Spring be the onset of women’s breakaway from traditional Arab social values, which have defined and limited them for so long?

Being an Arab woman myself, one cannot ignore the context of the highly patriarchic and conservative society all these social reforms are taking place in. As a result, giving women more recognition and responsibility in such a social framework may reveal itself as a relatively daunting task.

From Tunisia to Yemen, women have demonstrated side by side with men. In Libya it was the female relatives of men killed in Qaddafi’s jails who kicked off the revolutionary process. In Egypt, women and men slept beside each other in tents pitched on Tahrir Square awaiting the departure of Mubarak while women‘s high activity and “inappropriate” mixing with men in mass protests in Yemen made President Saleh the first political figure to specifically condone such female behavior. Women have carried out “women-only” protests across Syria, making the rest of the world aware of their increasing role in this revolution.

After having taken part in the revolutionary process, women have plucked up enough confidence and demonstrated enough initiative to demand more rights, freedom and equality to men. In Tunisia, one of the countries in the Arab world where women had the most rights and freedom, progress can already be noticed through the recent establishment of a minister of women’s affairs headed by Leila Labidi. Last year, the Egyptian parliament passed a law mandating the creation of 64 new seats in the house that must go to women.

Therefore, not all Arab states have openly embraced female emancipation. Libya has completely ignored female leadership and representation in its newly formed government appointing only two positions to women out of a possible 40, without forgetting the numerous rape cases that have arisen following the chaos of the revolution. In Syria, the army has attacked demonstrating women with the “same lethal brutality” they have targeted men. Saudi Arabia has recently extended the right to vote to women, but ironically has yet to allow the latter to drive and still demands women to have “male guardians” for most of their activities.

The main obstacle to their social escalation lies mainly in the strong male force within Arab society. Many men are unresponsive to their demands and are trying to inhibit and oppress their movement. The very same men Egyptian women had overthrown the government with in February, countered the march the former carried out on International Women’s Day a month later. Hypocritically, women must deal on a daily basis with street sexual harassment from their male counterparts according to Mona Eltahawy. The stereotype that women must fulfill a duty only towards their family is very much ingrained in Arab mentalities; it remains difficult for society especially for men to conceive that women could also carry out a duty towards their country.

On the other hand, the rise of Islamic figures in newly reformed countries threatens a return to highly conservative society. Women are fearful of a possible social regression in which they would see the few rights they may have acquired over the years quickly nibbled away. For this reason, the former are refusing to remain silent and are adamant to push themselves to the forefront of political and social activity and to “carve out” high importance positions by themselves. This has been seen on one hand through the emergence of outspoken Arab female bloggers.

Keeping in mind all that has been said, one unanswered question still hanging on my lips is: what will become of the many social taboos that have yet to be broken by Arab society? From general sexuality, to contraception, homosexuality and abortion, could such topics become an open subject for discussion among Arab individuals whether men or women? Can we expect an opening towards liberal values slowly swarm the Arab world?


Rhea Tabbara

Image Credit – Carlos Latuff