Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Middle East Feminist Revolution

The Middle East feminist revolution


Women are not merely joining protests to topple

dictators, they are at the centre of demanding social change.


Naomi Wolf

04 Mar 2011




Women supporting women inevitably leads to women

supporting revolution. In Tunisia and Tahrir Square,

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

Tunisia and Egypt?


In both countries, women protesters were nothing like

the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in

news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the

leadership. In Egypt's Tahrir Square, women volunteers,

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 Tahrir Square - and

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.


Supporters, leaders


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 United Kingdom. Egyptian women

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 Egypt

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 Egypt is

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

imagined: publishing newspapers - as Sanaa el Seif did,

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: a context

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 America helped fight for the

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,

the Middle East's despots are facing a situation in

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 Liberty: A Handbook

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

editorial policy.




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