Posted by on October 03, 2012 in Blog

By Jennine Vari

2012 Fall Intern

The protests across the Arab World that began in 2011 have led to sweeping social and political changes throughout the region, allowing previously silenced groups an opportunity to contribute to the restructuring of their country and seek a place for themselves in the political sphere. Arab women are one such group that has been marginalized for decades under the repressive regimes of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi, but with the rise of the Arab Spring they seized the chance to assert themselves politically and bring their issues to the political forefront. The Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a panel on Tuesday, October 2 to discuss women’s role in the Arab Spring and the current state of women’s rights. The panel consisted of scholars and activists from countries forever changed by the uprisings: Dalia Ziada from Egypt, Omezzine Khelifa from Tunisia, Rihab Elhaj from Libya, Fahmia Al Fotih from Yemen and Hala Al Dosari from Saudi Arabia.

All members of the panel gave accounts of women’s involvement in the Arab Spring and the scope of their current political participation. Despite working alongside men during the revolution, women are still marginalized in the social and political sphere, and the panelists cited different causes for this phenomenon. Ziada explained that in Egypt the mentality at the grassroots level is to blame. To illustrate this, she told an anecdote about her campaign for a seat in parliament, when her party did not want to list her name first on the ticket for fear that a woman’s name in the first position would discourage contributions. Elhaj explained how in Libya, the persistence of strict social norms put women running for office at a disadvantage. In both the public and private sphere, women rarely associate with men, so when running for office or trying to break into any male-dominated field, they are unknown by most men. Al Fotih explained how in Yemen, unlike in many other Arab nations, women are not even part of the agenda. Instead, activists who take any steps in advancing women’s rights are threatened and criticized.  Al Fotih summarized the situation with a quote by Jamal Bin Omar, the UN Envoy to Yemen: “Political Parties disagree on everything but they agree on marginalizing women.”

However, the Arab Spring has awakened women’s rights groups in the Arab World and progress has been made. According to Dalia Ziada, after Egypt’s revolution, two laws extending the rights of women were passed: a nationality law allowing mothers to pass their nationality on to their children and “khula”, which allows a woman to seek a divorce from her husband. Even in countries that didn’t have a revolution, like Saudi Arabia, women’s rights are becoming a salient issue. Hala Al Dosari explained how Saudis have becoming more active on social networking sites due to limited influence in traditional media. This has allowed Saudi women in particular to witness the events transpiring elsewhere and has inspired them to take action at home. By watching and learning, they have begun to challenge the religious authority and assert their rights.

Even though some progress has been made in term of women’s equality, they are slowly being pushed back to their pre-revolution status in society. Women were equally responsible as men for the changes that have taken place since 2011, so female activists and politicians continue to fight for the political and social equality they earned while working to topple dictatorships throughout the Arab World. As Dalia Ziada said, “There is no spring without flowers. There would have been no Arab Spring without women.”

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