Transcending State Feminism and Establishing Revolutionary Women’s Rights from the Arab Spring

12 Mar

“Transcending State Feminism and Establishing Revolutionary Women’s Rights from the Arab Spring”

Sherifa Zuhur, Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies
for “Women After the Arab Spring” University of Mary Washington, March 14, 2012
(Draft Version)

It is essential now to revisit the fact that Arab women had not obtained equality in the countries visited by the Arab Spring. Decades of women’s activism had come to rely on state feminism and I will first explain some implications of that situation.

Early on in my studies, I was stung in reading Western and other feminist accounts of Arab and Turkish women’s feminisms which judged these very critically, as merely having adopted ameliorative strategies of feminism (Rowbotham, 1974, or in the theoretical model of Chafetz and Dworkin, 1986) It has took many years for me to come to terms with what seemed an arrogant description of what was a fairly practical orientation for a social movement in a region where the word “feminist” is referred to as the “f” word.

Western and MENA scholars have explained how state feminism evolved, operated and effected certain gradual changes (Kandiyotti, ed. 1991, Joseph ed. et al. 2000) without leading to equal citizenship in countries where more than 50% of women are illiterate according to the Arab Human Development Report (2010).

State feminism does not mean that Hosni Mubarak or his wife Suzanne, or the National Women’s Council that she headed were great feminists! Nor that their enemies “naturally” oppose their pro-woman legislation as some have simplistically explained in the Egyptian media. What it actually means is that nothing could be accomplished in such political systems without a wide and pervasive network of wasta – connections, and connective power – what you call in Farsi, “parti.” Women activists had to cultivate and enlighten receptive governmental power mongers and educate women and men and promote them as journalists, governmental representatives, and in international organizations. It meant that campaigns on particular women’s issues were coordinated with the government and the state media – and sometimes foreign media, as well, or foreign institutions located in Egypt but which were exempt from some restrictions on speech or writing.

At the same time, women’s movements have been among those struggling for democratic rights , and alongside the official representatives sent to Beijing and Beijing II or who responded to the CEDAW(Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) there were shadow groups, some of whom also documented state violence.

How do women’s activists transition from such a situation to the present or the near future without losing ground and instead continuing progress for women? In feminist language of the past, people would quickly say, obtain grassroots support. Well, that is very difficult when the grassroots is still largely opposed to women’s rights if they appear to abridge men’s rights and where that grassroots is focused on survival. It is possible that the revolutions of the Arab spring may be an opening for women’s feminist activism just as the post 9/11 period was, rather paradoxically, because there was such a spotlight on the countries and their forward progress.

For that reason, I will reiterate my support (presented in an earlier paper) for

1. quotas guaranteeing women’s representation in political institutions. I am not the only one who has suggested this. Manal Omar, currently at USIP, testified to the U.S. Senate on the situation in Libya and proposed that “ The Libyan National Transitional Council should be encouraged to implement a quota to bolster the representation of women for current transitional government formation as well as for future parliamentarian elections.” (Omar, 2011, 3) I should add that Manal Omar documented the post-war situation in Iraq when international organizations tried very hard to improve women’s situation, which actually degraded in that environment.

The Libyan leadership’s response has been that there aren’t sufficient qualified women. That is untrue as there are large numbers of well-educated women professionals.

There are three women who have announced their candidacy in the Egyptian presidential race—they aren’t among the top 10 so their value is symbolic. Mona Prince, who is a feminist, has remarked that she is running to represent youth as well as women, since most of the candidates are men in their 70s.

How can women win office in the future w/o quotas? Mainly by gaining experience and exposure to the public. In the past, for legislative and judicial candidates, national and international organizations have played a strong role in conducting trainings and providing assistance in campaign design and management. Hopefully this sort of support can continue.

a. Outside of the state, there is strong need for communication, documentation and research. Considering the very strange and limited coverage of women and the Arab spring in English – we who can write about it must do so. Also studies need to be conducted on women’s needs and grievances. Some are still useful as in Egyptian NGO studies of the levels of violence against women.

b. At present, data is urgently required on the needs of women-headed households — due to the as yet, uncertain numbers of deaths in Libya and this is the case as well for Syria and Yemen.

c. Or women as part of national reconciliation – which is going to be a complicated economic as well as a political effort in Libya where people seek the restoration of their properties which were taken away from them under Qadhdhafi’s law prohibiting rents.

According to some scholars, we who write about those gender issues in their specific regional and country forms are Orientalist and essentialist in looking at problems like family violence which affects more than 30% of women given current data, and honor crimes. Name-calling aside, these are still very important problems to be dealt with, certainly as important as needed measures such as the right of women to pass on citizenship to their children in Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, where recently a measure passed allowing for citizenship to be granted if the father was Palestinian, but not if he was a Saudi Arabian, or any other non-Egyptian.

So this leads to me to consider some of the systemic gender issues that face women and to recommend work across party, ideological or religious lines on these issues.

In a research collective that I headed about 12 years ago, we studied the evolution of education in the region. Education was supposed to be the silver bullet that would cure violence against women, prepare them for employment and grant them more power and governments put a lot of resources into education. For at least two decades, women in the Arab countries have been outperforming men in schools, and in universities, yet, their graduating certificates became little more than new requisites for better marriages – they weren’t necessarily able to start their careers upon completing their degrees since their families expect them to marry at that point. This process was and is being interrupted in Libya and Syria due to the violence, but we can expect it to resume.

At the same time, marriage had become so expensive that couples who are not part of the elite or upper middle class were waiting for years to marry, on average, more than 10 years. (Singerman, 1999, 2001) The pressure to marry prevented some women from obtaining PhDs or traveling abroad for these degrees. And, employment has still not opened up in certain areas for these women to the degree that it does for men, particularly in the Gulf countries.

In Yemen, there is still an education gap for girls and marriage often interrupts women’s lives much earlier – when they are children or in their teen years– and there is an dire need for legislation on this issue (in Saudi Arabia as well). This is a reflection of the economic crisis in the country, young girls and children are essentially sold, as their families benefit from the mahr.

Proposals that have been internationally popular to meet the needs of poor women, creating micro-financing for small businesses is not a way of addressing the above systemic gender problems.

On the other hand, since that time we compared and shared our research on gender (Zuhur, 2003) I can say that I was part of educating a generation in Egypt who actually can envision themselves as “gender specialists”– a viable career due to the thousands of NGOs operating in the region. Now, the NGOs created their own problems; the heavy focus on victim’s issues – which do need to be dealt with, there are still far too few shelters or programs that meet the needs of women who are victims of violence. Unfortunately, the NGOs operate on a grant cycle and thus the results are less important than securing a constant influx of funding. And finally, some are targeted as being foreign to local interests. Unfortunately, this goes beyond the NGOS – for was the fate of the master’s gender and development program in Yemen that was directed by the late Raufa Hassan.

The most pressing issue of the post-revolutionary period is a security vacuum and actual dislocations and economic need. NGOs can help with these issues so long as levels of violence do not rise. For example, Libya is still very unstable and Egypt, and even Tunisia have been plagued by robberies and attacks and kidnappings. Thousands of Syrians – men and women, are currently refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. It’s unclear what will happen over the coming year, but this situation could worsen, thus NGOS who are prepared to help women in such circumstances will have the best vantage point to assess women’s needs.

Once order is re-established, it will be important for feminists to study the changes affecting women in a systemic and qualitative fashion as well as on an issue-by-issue basis and to look very carefully at where the gaps are and why.

Mahnaz Afkhami also testified to a Senate Committee on the issue of women’s status following the Arab Spring for Sisterhood is Global and her main point was that women have learned a lot over the past decades about how to utilize the international human rights community through the CEDAW process to effect change. I think this is true, but it did operate within the state feminist context described. In other words, feminists were able to shame their governments, in some cases, into responding with needed reforms after the CEDAW committee took issue with countries’ tardy responses and lack of action.

Tunisia withdrew all specific reservations to the CEDAW on August 16, 2011. Unfortunately the government says that it will not enforce anything that is contrary to Article One of the Tunisian Constitution which designates Islam as the state religion, so this just like a de facto reservation and feminist groups like AFTD (Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates) are working to enact further reforms.

Where this work will need to diverge from past patterns is in its need to convince ordinary Tunisians that further reforms are necessary.

Along these lines, so much remains to be accomplished in Yemen, Libya and Syria, and also in Egypt. And that, is why the visibility and strength of women in the Arab revolutions is so exciting and vital. For as with politics, much had remained static for many years that has now been turned upside down, and inside out.


Afkhami, Mahnaz. “Women’s Rights and the Arab Spring. Middle East/North Africa Overview and Fact Sheet. Appendix. As part of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights,
Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues and the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Central Asian Affairs. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace
November 2, 2011

Coleman, Isabel. “Women’s Voices on the Arab Spring.” Council on Foreign Relations. January 27, 2012,

Jamjoom, Mohammed and Almasmari, Hakeem. “Yemeni Women Burn Veils to Protest Regime.” CNN. 12 October, 2011.

Joseph, Suad, ed. Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Kandiyoti, Deniz, ed. Women, Islam and the State. Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1991.

Nazra for Feminist Studies. “Joint Statement.” March 12, 2012 .

Omar, Manal. “Women and the Arab Spring.” Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights,
Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues and the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Central Asian Affairs. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace
November 2, 2011.

Singerman, Diane. “Marriage and Divorce in Egypt: Financial Costs and Political Struggles.” Les métamorphoses du mariage au Moyen-Orient. Dir. par Barbara Drieskens,
Cahiers de l’IFPO, 75-96.

Zuhur, Sherifa, ed. Women and Gender in the Islamic World Today. Berkeley: UCIAS and UC Press, 2003 (posted as a large electronic book – removed from the UCIAS site in 2004).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: