Revolution & the Role of Women

by Marni Kostman, JWI intern and student at George Washington University Law School

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has fervently maintained that empowering women is a “prerequisite for the Arab renaissance.” Women’s full partnership in the Middle East revolutions is essential to lasting democracy and successful economic development. In fact, Clinton maintains that when women are marginalized, societies stagnate. As we discussed in our International Women’s Day post on women/girls and education, when girls are given opportunities, the ripple effect benefits entire communities and future generations.

In her keynote address at the Women in the World conference, Clinton highlighted the courageous work of women in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the room for improvement in both countries when it comes to female inclusion. In Tunisia, only two women have been appointed to the transitional government – fewer than the number in ousted president Ben Ali’s cabinet. At the same time female business leaders gather to march for economic opportunities, and against political violence. In Egypt, female protesters are being harassed and even forced to take “virginity tests.” These women are being tortured; they are subject to strip searches, have been photographed against their will by male soldiers, are beaten and given electric shocks. Human rights abuses like these fly in the face of a movement about liberation. Furthermore, Egypt’s transitional government committee does not include a single female member. As a petition launched by Egyptian women and already signed by 60 organizations is encouraging the Constitutional Committee “to add a female legal expert to help guide the formation of a new government,” we start to wonder if genuine change is on the horizon. If equal rights are not extended to women, the new government will be nothing more than a democratic façade.

Women were at the heart of the protests and should be embraced as critical allies in reform. While much of the news media presents a stereotype of all-male protesters in Egypt, women like Asmaa Mahfouz and Nawal El Saadawi are stepping up to tell an alternative story – one where women and youth were on the frontlines – and sharing their courageous efforts in the revolution.

Nawal El Saadawi’s story, in particular, stuck with me. Saadawi is an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist. Imprisoned under the Sadat regime in 1981 for her controversial views, she considered running for president in 2005 but was stopped by stringent requirements for first-time candidates. She continued her activism and protested day and night in Tahrir Square at 80 years old. She tells Democracy Now!, “[W]e are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy and a new constitution, no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians, to change the system.” Instead of fearing the takeover of fundamentalist groups as was done during the Iranian Revolution, Saadawi remains optimistic and has faith in the unity of the protesters to bring out a just result. She is frustrated that the committees are in the hands of “old men” but uses this frustration to reestablish the Egyptian Women’s Union and advocate for women’s representation at every level of government. She recognizes that the fight for gender equality will be a “process” but maintains that “organizing is power.” She calls for women locally and across the globe to join in this collective action, calling for “glocal” solidarity. By “glocal,” she means that women can support equality in the Middle East by fighting for equality in their own communities.

In the U.S., we must focus on opening channels of communication with marginalized groups in Egypt. We also need to model the equality we hope to see in other countries in struggles like labor protests in Wisconsin and the fight for reproductive rights. Ultimately, however, the struggle for liberty rests on each of the revolting countries’ shoulders alone.

In this time of transition in the Middle East, when the economies remain unstable and new, corrupt regimes may seize power, it is more important than ever for the transitional governments and the population to maintain a commitment to human rights regardless of gender. Before the revolution, a 2002 study found that Arab women’s participation in politics and economics was the lowest in the world, a fact that stifled Arab countries’ development and standard of living. These countries have the opportunity to change this reality for the future as they plan the new democratic regime. Women must be involved in this planning; as Hillary Clinton said, they must be given “a voice and a vote.” Egypt and Tunisia are at a crossroads: Only time will tell whether the revolutions will result in the erosion of women’s rights or a more egalitarian society where all individuals are included and empowered.

Related content:

Video from the Women in the World Conference

Article by Amnesty International, “Egyptian Revolution Sidelining Women?

An article on women in Egyptian protests

An account of women in Libya’s revolution


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