The original article appeared at TomDispatch.com
The “Arab Spring” has received copious attention in the American media, but one of its crucial elements has been largely overlooked: the striking role of women in the protests sweeping the Arab world. Despite inadequate media coverage of their role, women have been and often remain at the forefront of those protests.
As a start, women had a significant place in the Tunisian demonstrations that kicked off the Arab Spring, often marching up Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, the capital, with their husbands and children in tow. Then, the spark for the Egyptian uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak out of office was a January 25 demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square called by an impassioned young woman via a video posted on Facebook. In Yemen, columns of veiled women have come out in Sanaa and Taiz to force that country’s autocrat from office, while in Syria, facing armed secret police, women have blockaded roads to demonstrate for the release of their husbands and sons from prison.
But with such bold gestures go fears. As women look to the future, they worry that on the road to new, democratic parliamentary regimes, their rights will be discarded in favor of male constituencies, whether patriarchal liberals or Muslim fundamentalists. The collective memory of how women were in the forefront of the Algerian revolution for independence from France from 1954 to 1962, only to be relegated to the margins of politics thereafter, still weighs heavily.
Historians will undoubtedly debate the causes of the Arab Spring for decades. Among them certainly are high rates of unemployment for the educated classes, neoliberal policies of privatization and union-busting, corruption in high places, soaring food and energy prices, economic hardship caused by the shrinking of employment opportunities in the Gulf oil states and Europe (thanks to the 2008 global financial meltdown) and decades of frustration with petty, authoritarian styles of governing. In their roles as workers and professionals as well as family caregivers, women have suffered directly from all these discontents and more, while watching their children and husbands suffer, too.
In late January, freelance journalist Megan Kearns pointed out the relative inattention American television and most print and Internet media gave to women and, by and large, the absence of images of women protesting in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet women couldn’t have been more visible in the big demonstrations of early to mid-January in the streets of Tunis, whether accompanying their husbands and children or forming distinct protest lines of their own—and given Western ideas of oppressed Arab women, this should in itself have been news.
Women Take to the Streets from Tunisia to Syria
To start with Tunisia, women there have, in fact, been in the vanguard of protest movements and social change since the drive to gain independence from France of the late 1940s. Tunisian women have a relatively high literacy rate (71 percent), represent more than one-fifth of the country’s wage earners, and make up 43 percent of the nearly half-million members of eighteen local unions. Most of these unionized women work in the education, textile, health, city services and tourism industries. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (French acronym: UGTT) had increasingly come into conflict with the country’s strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and so its rank and file enthusiastically joined the street protests. Today, the UGTT continues to pressure the government formed after Ben Ali fled to move forward with genuine reforms.