A common element in the protests in the MENA region from Tunisia to Bahrain has been the presence of women. They have been an integral voice in demanding reforms and rights under some of the region’s most oppressive regimes.

Women have a strong potential to make changes within societies. This fact has been affirmed by history in many parts of the world; from America’s Susan B Anthony to India’s Sarojini Naidu, and beyond.  The potential for women to forefront significant changes is recognized by many regimes, which have continually made systemized efforts to keep women silenced and as far as possible from decision-making positions.  Despite these serious efforts, women are acting out against the status quo.

In Saudi Arabia, the recent movements to protest and demand fair treatment of prisoners in Qassim and Riyadh were led and organized by women. In Qatif large numbers of women have been protesting alongside men in the streets, and it was women who organized and led the Women2Drive campaign; which has transformed into more general campaigns for human rights within the Kingdom.

In Yemen, Tawakkul Karman, a female icon of the protest movement, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She has been referred to as the “Mother of the Revolution” for her active leadership roll and contribution to rights movements within Yemen.

In Bahrain, women have also been an integral part of the uprisings. Brave protestor Zaynab AlKhawaja managed to put security forces in a baffling position. When bullets and tear gas would be fired, forces generally expected an easy win, as crowds would disperse and be pushed back. However, Zaynab challenged this assumption by sitting down and refusing to move in the midst of shots being fired and tear gas surrounding her. Her sister, Maryam AlKhawaja stated she feels that women could be a motivational key in moving the revolution forward. “If a group of women could come together, organize and unite to take on the regime, I think it would have the potential to be a game changer on the ground in Bahrain. I honestly think people would be inspired in a new way by seeing women taking this sort of initiative.”

With women holding such a strong key in the revolutionary context, it is quite natural that they have been the center of many harsh attacks at the hands of regimes and others within their own society who are trying to avoid these changes.

We saw the attempt to shame women into silence by subjecting them to virginity tests in Egypt, and some women complained of increasing cases of sexual harassment within the country. Zaynab Alkhawaja was beaten and arrested by Bahraini security forces who didn’t know how to handle the way she protested. Women2Drive campaigner Manal Al Sharif recognized recently that the significant majority of hateful reactions she receives come from Saudi citizens, who are clearly uncomfortable with a fellow Saudi pushing for change within the Kingdom. Women in Syria were belittled by a number of Arab men throughout the region who offered to “save Syrian women through marriage” as their selfish “contribution” to the Syrian revolution, and how members of the regime and security forces would use rape to intimidate Syrian women. A Tunisian woman who was recently raped by police officers was actually charged with “indecency” and essentially blamed for those men’s vicious actions.

These are a small number of examples of the many ways systems in areas impacted by recent revolutions are trying to intimidate women back into silence. Some tear away at our characters, others threaten us with shame, rape and harass us, use religion to manipulate us, obsess over the way we dress to distract from what we are capable of accomplishing, and homogenize all women into the simple role of servant wives and mothers. Some of them do this out of simple selfishness; however I would argue the majority of this discrimination comes from fear – fear of losing power, fear of what women could accomplish if they were to unite and take on these issues together, and fear of what may come from the participation of this very strong portion of society that has dealt with generations upon generations of oppression. Women must not be discouraged by these attempts to demean and bring them down – instead it should be used as motivation to fight back with more fervor and will than ever before. Now is the time for changes to be made.

*This piece was inspired through interactions and conversations with Human Rights Defenders at the 2012 San Francisco Freedom Forum

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