Why didn't the Arab Spring translate to political rights for women in the Middle East?
The Arab Spring was a complete game-changer in the Middle East and the world in general. Apart from being a political movement all over the Arab world, it was also a revolution in terms of culture and social values. What is also very important to know is that the Arab Spring opened the Arab World to some very interesting discourse and debate on their own identity as people and on rights. In a way, the Arab Spring could be regarded as a political and social renaissance, delving into self-introspection on so many different issues.
What is important to know is that in the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other countries, women had a very important role to play in it. They were pro-active in coming onto the streets to protest against the excesses and the dictatorial regimes and they were the ones taking the fight to the regimes. To demonstrate this very point is the very fact that Tawakkul Karman from Yemen actually won a Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the protests in Yemen, which was a very successful one unseating Ali Abdullah Saleh from power and leading to more democratization of Yemen.
However, a very interesting question is whether the Arab Spring has translated these gains for an emancipation of women which would uplift their status higher than it was before the Arab Spring. Here is where it got interesting.
The answer would be a resounding no. It has only marginally helped women to actually gain some form of emancipation. There are many factors to this.
For one, let us understand that the political upheavals in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen was about people uniting against the dictator. The downfall of the regime constituted a common interest for large sections of the society which contributed to the mass appeal and the subsequent flooding of the streets demanding that the dictators be thrown out and democracy prevail. The call for democracy itself was brought up because only the social identity of the autocrat was going to be benefited with the gains of society. Therefore, a large part of the population was left out of it. And even in terms of identity, it was the autocrat's sect or tribe or immediate family that benefited.
So when people came out into the streets, they all had the common objective of the removal of the autocrat. So you see everybody joining in including Islamists, women groups, minorities and everybody else who were not part of the regime. The women's participation was encouraged by all the political entities present in the opposition to the regime, because they needed strength in numbers. So we see parties like the Muslim Brotherhood actively encouraging participation of women and also promising them a better future when democracy would prevail in Egypt.
But what has happened is that, after the autocrat was unseated, all such promises of emancipation was forgotten for good. This is because there was no common ground anymore. Everybody started taking their interests into consideration. So for the Islamists, it was about getting power and advancing the cause of political Islam, minorities wanted to make sure that the new state would protect their rights and so on. After the upheavals, the traditional patriarchal mindset which has been a pervasive problem through time in the Middle East prevailed.
Effectively, women were used for their numbers and their enthusiasm and then forgotten.
This brings up two parallels. One with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 as well the Indian freedom struggle.
The Arab Spring shares the same fate of the Islamic Revolution in the sense that there was an abandonment of emancipating objectives and promises after the Islamic Republic came to power. So there were diverse groups participating in the revolution against the Shah. The leftist Tudeh Party, women and many other groups cooperated with the Islamist movement of Ayatollah Khomeini to oust the Shah, which they did successfully. After the Shah was ousted, they lost the common ground. The Islamists in fact clamped down on the Tudeh and basically persecuted them for their political views. A movement for the emancipation of women never came. In fact, Iran retains some very regressive laws against women, even after 45 years. Even the token representation of Women in the Majlis has not helped to emancipate women in Iran.
As far as the Indian example is concerned, women were very active in the freedom struggle. They were the ones leading protests and trying to resist the British occupation of India and its oppressive laws. However, their role has not been as appreciated as they should have. You have leading figures within the Indian nationalists, including Gandhi, advocating that the women not take up such roles and that they tend to their own responsibilities as mothers, wives and sisters. Even now, after over 65 years of independence, India can't claim that their women enjoy equality on the political front. Indian women are still woefully under-represented in the Parliament as well as State Legislatures. Though there is some optimism as larger numbers of women are slowly getting represented in Indian politics.
Coming back to the Arab Spring, when they were no longer needed, the women were just discarded and what went with it was their rights and their advocacy. Parties did not field higher numbers of women as their candidates and political negotiations for the transitions of their nations rested with the males, most of whom had no intentions of devolving more power to the women.
So all said and done, it came down to all manner of political groupings, affiliations and vested interests. Sectarian, religious, tribal and all other identities took precedence over gender identities. Even after their monumental contribution to such a huge movement, their issues were ignored. This is understood with the very fact that even during the protests, there were a lot of crimes against women and very little was done to bring them to justice.
However, one good thing that actually came out of it was the fact that it sparked off a very interesting debate on how the society views women and their role in it. At least now, there are more people actually talking about it than it was prior to the Arab Spring. We can hope that it would eventually lead to an emancipation of women, especially in the political scene, though we have no way to ascertain that.
Another good thing that has emerged is that with the coming in of new media and social networking, women's groups have a much larger access to resources and people, and will be able to gather a much larger base in order to convey their message. The Arab Spring probably gave them some valuable experience in how to manage social networking and turn it into a positive tool for talking about rights. Thanks to that, the debate will actually continue and probably will translate into political gains in the future.