Women are not merely joining protests to topple
dictators, they are at the centre of demanding social change.
04 Mar 2011
Women supporting women inevitably leads to women
supporting revolution. In
women were at the front and centre of organising and
leading protests, demanding social change Photo[GALLO/GETTY]
[To see photo, click on URL.]
Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about
Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women
doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent,
gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind
rigid gender roles. So where were these women in
In both countries, women protesters were nothing like
the Western stereotype
news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the
some accompanied by children, worked steadily to
support the protests - helping with security,
communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited
the great numbers of women and children with the
remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in
the face of grave provocations.
Other citizen reporters in
virtually anyone with a cell phone could become one -
noted that the masses of women involved in the protests
were demographically inclusive. Many wore headscarves
and other signs of religious conservatism, while others
reveled in the freedom to kiss a friend or smoke a
cigarette in public.
But women were not serving only as support workers, the
habitual role to which they are relegated in protest
movements, from those of the 1960s to the recent
student riots in the
also organised, strategised, and reported the events.
Bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada took grave risks to
keep the world informed daily of the scene in Tahrir
Square and elsewhere.
The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle
East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in
did not just "join" the protests - they were a leading
force behind the cultural evolution that made the
protests inevitable. And what is true for
true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the
Arab world. When women change, everything changes - and
women in the Muslim world are changing radically.
The greatest shift is educational. Two generations ago,
only a small minority of the daughters of the elite
received a university education. Today, women account
for more than half of the students at Egyptian
universities. They are being trained to use power in
ways that their grandmothers could scarcely have
in defiance of a government order to cease operating;
campaigning for student leadership posts; fundraising
for student organisations; and running meetings.
Indeed, a substantial minority of young women in Egypt
and other Arab countries have now spent their formative
years thinking critically in mixed-gender environments,
and even publicly challenging male professors in the
classroom. It is far easier to tyrannise a population
when half are poorly educated and trained to be
submissive. But, as Westerners should know from their
own historical experience, once you educate women,
democratic agitation is likely to accompany the massive
cultural shift that follows.
The nature of social media, too, has helped turn women
into protest leaders. Having taught leadership skills
to women for more than a decade, I know how difficult
it is to get them to stand up and speak out in a
hierarchical organisational structure. Likewise, women
tend to avoid the figurehead status that traditional
protest has in the past imposed on certain activists -
almost invariably a hotheaded young man with a megaphone.
Projection of power
In such contexts - with a stage, a spotlight, and a
spokesperson - women often shy away from leadership
roles. But social media, through the very nature of the
technology, have changed what leadership looks and
feels like today. Facebook mimics the way many women
choose to experience social reality, with connections
between people just as important as individual
dominance or control, if not more so.
You can be a powerful leader on Facebook just by
creating a really big "us". Or you can stay the same
size, conceptually, as everyone else on your page - you
don't have to assert your dominance or authority. The
structure of Facebook's interface creates what
brick-and-mortar institutions - despite 30 years of
feminist pressure - have failed to provide
in which women's ability to forge a powerful "us" and
engage in a leadership of service can advance the cause
of freedom and justice worldwide.
Of course, Facebook cannot reduce the risks of protest.
But, however violent the immediate future in the Middle
East may be, the historical record of what happens when
educated women participate in freedom movements
suggests that those in the region who would like to
maintain iron-fisted rule are finished.
Just when France began its rebellion in 1789, Mary
Wollstonecraft, who had been caught up in witnessing
it, wrote her manifesto for women's liberation. After
educated women in
abolition of slavery, they put female suffrage on the
agenda. After they were told in the 1960s that "the
position of women in the movement is prone", they
generated "second wave" feminism - a movement born of
women's new skills and old frustrations.
Time and again, once women have fought the other
battles for the freedom of their day, they have moved
on to advocate for their own rights. And, since
feminism is simply a logical extension of democracy,
which it will be almost impossible to force these
awakened women to stop their fight for freedom - their
own and that of their communities.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic
whose most recent book is Give Me
for American Revolutionaries.
This article was first published by Project Syndicate.
The views expressed in this article are the author's
own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's
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