Muslim and Arab women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have long been regarded by ‘the West’ as silent, exotically ‘unseen’, or mere echoes of the paternalistic regimes under which they were believed to live. Particularly after the 2001 and 2003 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in conjunction with the recently instituted French burqa ban, the whole of Islam and the many roles that women play within Muslim and Arab societies have become conflated with extremism. While many MENA governments have indeed been deficient in instituting equal legal rights for both genders, this has not prevented women in the region from being capable and productive members of society who actively pursue political reforms and social change. Far from being silent or invisible, women have, in fact, been the backbone of the current wave of revolution sweeping through the MENA region.

Contrary to many Western depictions, Arab and Muslim women have often been at the forefront of liberation movements in the region. In March of 1919, Egyptian women organized against the British protectorate in what have come to be known as the “Ladies’ Protests,” demanding to be heard at a time when women in the United States had not yet obtained the right to vote. During the Franco-Algerian War (1954-1962), women risked their lives to carry messages, feed and hide fighters, plant bombs, and infiltrate French quartiers incognito, playing an important role in the larger campaign for Algerian independence. More recently, Arab women in the region and across the world have become important advocates for the Palestinian cause, using tools such as film and social media to describe and opine upon the state of affairs in the Palestinian Territories. One such example is Annemarie Jacir, producer of the 2008 film, “Salt of this Sea.”

This history of female activism has contributed to the movements presently taking place in the MENA region, protests that have been facilitated by the advent of multi-media and driven by the dissatisfaction of generations of Arabs—men and women alike—who are now pushing for true regime change in their lifetimes. Despite media images that focused on the thronging masses of young men clamoring for revolution, it was women who enacted the machinations and symbols of change that propelled these movements forward, both behind the scenes and on the public stage. In Tunisia, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man frustrated by government corruption and arbitrary state action prohibiting him from operating a fruit cart, his sole source of income, moved a nation to anger. Arguably, however, the devastation of Mohamed’s mother, Menobia Bouazizi, who openly recounted her son’s humiliation and economic desperation to the Tunisian press, helped tip the balance against the government and fueled the demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who ultimately fled the country on January 14, 2011.

Tunisia’s centrality in sparking the Arab uprisings of 2011 provides further evidence of the important role played by women in the region’s political and social arenas.[1] Tunisia has a particularly high female literacy rate, standing at approximately 82% according to UNICEF, along with very well organized women’s political organizations. In the case of the Egyptian uprising, which began on January 25, 2011 just weeks after Ben-Ali’s departure, women took on both popular and iconic roles in pushing the movement forward. Shortly after the ouster of Ben-Ali, 26-year old Asmaa Mahfouz, a computer company employee in Cairo and now a prominent member of Egypt’s Coalition for the Youth Revolution, posted a scathing YouTube video calling upon the youth to rise up and, in particular, chiding men to join her in protest against the government in Cairo’s Tahrir Square: “If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th…come and protect me and all the other girls at the protest…[if you do not come]…you will be guilty before your nation and your people.” Her challenge hit a nerve. The video went viral, becoming a sensation on Egyptian cell phones, and reportedly prompting the government to block cell phone service in the days following January 25th. Mahfouz’s video was credited for playing an important role in contributing to the massive turnout on January 25th, as well as for reiterating the importance of Internet and cell phones as the primary communications mediums of the region’s revolutionary movements.

Notably, it was Ms. Mahfouz, a young woman, who was most in tune with the mood of the country and who knew how to inspire Egyptians to act. By inverting her role as a ‘girl’ in need of protection, Mahfouz used this gender stereotype as a tactic to move men to action while simultaneously assuming a priori that women would be involved in the demonstrations. In such a way, women became the movement’s driving force. The imagery Mahfouz used in her YouTube video also bears mentioning. In her video, taken in her home, Mahfouz wore a hijab – she appeared as a girl, pious and traditional, hardly a person to confront her country’s conservative conventions. Yet, her presentation was surreptitiously evocative of change and reform. By entering the homes and minds of her compatriots through digital devices under a backdrop of social values and traditional dress, Mahfouz brought a sense of an enduring Egyptian identity that demanded political change.

This tactic of subverting and reinventing ‘traditional’ expectations of womanhood in the service of revolution has resonated in a number of movements currently peppering the region. Notably, this strategy has been adopted by 30-year old Yemeni activist Tawakul Abdel Salam Karman. Ms. Salam Karman is a journalist, staunch defender of freedom of the press, an advocate for human rights, and a member of the Islamist party Islah. On January 23, Yemeni officials detained Salam Karman for leading protests at the university in Sana’a in support of the Tunisian revolution and calling for the ouster of President Ali Abudllah Saleh, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for over thirty years. As a result of violent street protests that erupted against her arrest, the government soon released Salam Karman from detention.

Salam Karam has been particularly adept at using her gender to shape and further her political agenda. Back in early 2010, in response to various press queries regarding the need for female leadership in the region, Salam Karman issued a letter to Women Without Borders, an international organization that aims to help integrate women into the public arena, particularly in decision-making processes. In discussing the central role of women in improving Yemeni society and combating violence, Salam Karman deftly employed gender stereotypes to justify the need for women’s involvement in the country’s political life. “Women”, she wrote, “have more opportunities in challenging extremism and terrorism than men due to woman’s nature in having patience, containing others, hating killing and bloodshed and—more importantly—women have tremendous feelings of love and sacrifice towards their husbands, children, and communities that is enough to enhance the attitude of coexistence, respect, trust, and listening to the other. This, in turn, will lead to drying the roots and sources of extremism. Extremism stems from the culture of rejecting the other and the culture of hating the other. Therefore, there is no solution other than spreading the culture of coexistence and dialogue, skills that women master and possess.”

Interestingly, this view of women as both instigators of and bridges to democracy and peace in societies that are transitioning from periods of dictatorship and state-sponsored terrorism has previously taken hold in Latin America, another postcolonial region, during the fall of 20th century dictatorships in Argentina (1976-1983), Chile (1973-1990), Uruguay (1973-1984), Paraguay (1954-1989), and Brazil (1964-1985).

Mirroring Latin America and the Arab World

In Latin America, as in the Arab world, religion and gender roles have been firmly entrenched in the cultural psyche. The Latin American military dictatorships of the last century tended to be of the far-right variety, imposing a ‘traditionalist’ view of womanhood that emphasized motherhood and women’s role in the family. Female political participation was permitted only insofar as it benefited the regime.

As the state-sponsored kidnappings of dissidents increased, leading to a rise in the number of desaparecidos or “the Disappeared,” women began to utilize their traditional roles in very unexpectedly political ways. This was most symbolized in the work of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, or the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, in Argentina. In 1977, in the midst of what has become known as Argentina’s Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), a group of middle aged housewives in Buenos Aires did the unthinkable: they left their homes and took to the streets, demanding that the government reveal the whereabouts of their disappeared children. They marched around the Plaza de Mayo, the site of Argentina’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1816, wearing white handkerchiefs around their heads as a symbol of purity, truth, and childhood (the same handkerchiefs were at the time commonly used as children’s diapers). Through this movement, Argentine women affirmed their dual role as activists and mothers.

Like the young Asmaa Mahfouz in Egypt, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo employed cultural customs to their own advantage. As church-going housewives dedicated to the home and to the preservation of family life, these women transformed their roles as mothers seeking to recover their disappeared loved ones into an effective means of waging war against state-sponsored oppression. For the leader of the military junta and de facto Argentine president Jorge Rafaél Videla, this tactic was a difficult one to counteract. The image of these marching mothers and their tenacity eventually gained worldwide press attention, shining a light on the human rights abuses in Argentina. The collapse of the regime soon followed, which in turn triggered a domino effect that led to the fall of other military governments in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay) and Brazil.

Despite their eventual successes, the Madres’ attempt to swaddle political action in the trappings of motherhood did not provide its members with protection from state-sponsored violence. Some participants, such as founding member Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti, paid the ultimate price for their valor, themselves becoming desaparecidas. As members of the Madres later expressed, shortly following the fall of the military junta, “the fear and silence imposed by those in power produced a paralysis which led many sectors of the population into a tragic passivity. The intention was to make all the Argentines disappear as persons and as citizens. That is to say, they meant to disappear our national identity.”[2] The state’s intentional erasure of the popular will was a phenomenon that the Madres[3] struggled to prevent, and one that the people of the Arab world find all too familiar.

Conclusion

With the mass involvement and participation of women in current uprisings around the Arab and Muslim world, one cannot help but recall the political

Image from Libya Feb17.com

maneuvers of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and the reverberations of their protests across Latin America. While the cultural backdrop may be different, the postcolonial and economic contexts of the Latin American and MENA regions do share many similarities, as do their respective challenges in accepting and supporting women’s participation in public life.  In fact, the current threat to the continued domination of the ‘bloc’ of dictatorships in the MENA region arguably find its nearest parallel in the pan-Latin American campaign for democracy that took place just 30 years ago.

A YouTube video recently released by the anti-Gaddafi opposition group Libyafeb17.com is a prime example of the ways in which women are using their gendered roles to subvert the ruling regime and to propel ongoing protests in the MENA region. The video details the crimes against humanity committed by Gaddafi, with one image being particularly startling. A mother, cradling a framed photo of her “disappeared” son, cries defiantly at the camera. Refusing to be silenced, she mirrors the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. On March 8, thousands more women took to the streets in Benghazi (Libya) to call for freedom, to clamor for peace, and to honor their dead on International Women’s Day. These women are the backbone of the revolutionary movement, a very real testament to the protracted human rights catastrophe currently taking place in Libya. Regardless of the results of the Libyan conflict, women who refuse to be silenced represent the change that will forever cast its shadow over that country.

At this pivotal time in the MENA region, women’s political participation is not only necessary, but also crucial to ensuring peace and prosperity. After many years of economic, political and social stagnation during military dictatorships, the countries of the Southern Cone and Brazil witnessed the importance of women’s continued involvement in national transitions to democracy and economic prosperity. In the countries of Latin America, which had been devastated by military regimes, women brought political fairness and an opportunity for social healing, contributions that would eventually elevate them to the highest echelons of government. This central role of women in Latin American public life has been recently highlighted by the increase in female heads of state in the region, such as Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and the newly elected Dilma Rousseff of Brazil.

In Latin America, social, political, and economic catastrophe became an opportunity to reconstruct and re-imagine society, leading to the eventual integration of women’s voices into popular public discourse.[4] Indeed, the role of women has proved vital to the revolution and to national reconstruction in the region. Similarly, Arab and Muslim women have fuelled the revolutions currently taking place in their countries. The opportunities for them to take on central roles in their societies’ political and social futures are greater than ever. Lasting change will not, and cannot, take place without them.


[1] In fact, the stage may have been set by the June 2009 death of the young Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan. Neda, whose name means “the voice” or “the call,” was shot in the chest during protests in Iran following the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a second presidential term. Her dying moments were videotaped and disseminated worldwide, transforming her into an symbol of the struggle against government repression, as well as an example of the power of technology as a mobilizing tool.

[2] Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Boletín, no. 12. diciembre, 1983.

[3] In another parallel between the two regions, Iranian women formed a group similar to the Madres known as the “Mourning Mothers”, in the aftermath of the country’s post-election demonstrations in 2009. The Mourning Mothers consist of women whose children have been killed, disappeared, or detained in post-election violence in the country. The groups holds weekly meetings in Laleh Park in Tehran, in support of their efforts to draw attention to their plight, and are regularly detained by Iranian security forces.

[4] Though the Southern Cone now has the highest Human Development Index in Latin America and women there, as well as in Brazil, have made enormous strides in recent decades, substantial progress has yet to made with regard to reproductive rights.