An Arab Spring for Women: the Coles in Tomdispatch

Just out in, an essay by Shahin Cole and Juan Cole on “An Arab Spring for Women”.


‘ The Arab Spring has proven an epochal period of activism and change for women, recalling the role of early feminists in the 1919 Egyptian movement for independence from Britain, or the important place of women in the Algerian Revolution. The sheer numbers of politically active women in this series of uprisings, however, dwarf their predecessors. That this female element in the Arab Spring has drawn so little comment in the West suggests that our own narratives of, and preoccupations with, the Arab world — religion, fundamentalism, oil and Israel — have blinded us to the big social forces that are altering the lives of 300 million people.

Women have been aided by this generation’s advances in education and the professions, by the prominence of articulate women anchors on satellite television networks like Aljazeera, and by the rise of the Internet and social media. Women can assert leadership roles in cyberspace that young men’s dominance of the public sphere might have hampered in city squares.

Their prominence in the labor movements and at the public rallies in Tunisia and Egypt, moreover, underlines how much more of a public role they now have than is usually acknowledged. ‘

Read the whole thing.

6 Responses

  1. I guess the “fundamentalist” males, there and here, have actually had real reasons to fear women whose families and lives are trashed and crushed by Kleptocracy and hypocritical religiosity. Bearing in mind that women are also matriarchs and actors in Kleptocratic families.

    Thank you both for inspiring observations and words. Too bad we humans can’t more uniformly be better than we are…

  2. Dear Mr Cole,
    No one does as good a job in illuminating the Arab and Muslim world for the American public as you do. In this case, as well as in others, you steadily tread where others are too docile to explore.

    Thank you.

  3. As an American feminist, of course I am happy to see women empowering themselves.

    As to the lack of news coverage, or even comments on this blog, that Muslim women can stretch out for freedom while wearing hijabs is a heretical notion in the West.

    US supporters of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan often justified those wars by their supposed liberation of females oppressed by Islam. That liberation might be hard to come by while dodging bombs never seemed to be a convincing argument, nor that those disrupting wars, only served to empower the most conservative elements in society.

  4. I just read yesterday of an attack on 7 women protesters in Yemen by fundamentalists who were apparently telling them to go home. I have not yet been able to confirm this from my friends still in Yemen. The story came out in the Yemen Post, so that leaves me in some doubt as to its veracity, particularly as it comes not so long after Saleh’s statement condemning female protesters and raising the tried and true fear of Islamicists in the ranks.

    As for the west, the lack of meaningful reporting or commentary on women’s role in these uprisings, even from liberals and traditional women’s rights advocates, does not surprise me much. The participation of women and the how’s of it, just as the eruption, evolution, and development of the Arab spring itself, caught the omniscient West by surprise. Basically the West cannot claim they had a hand in this, and I believe deep down that disturbs them, whether liberal or conservative. The West, and particularly the United States, finds itself an observer riding on the tailwinds of history rather than at the helm of change. I believe that hits a deep cord of insecurity felt in the West, as it struggles to even consciously acknowledge it may no longer be the driver of history and have to share global hegemony. Along with which comes some kind of recognition of its own possible relative decline..

    Though liberals don’t like to acknowledge it, the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism haunts their perception of the revolutions. As an academic uncomfortably pointed out at a recent talk, the rebels in Libya are often filmed shouting “Allahu Akbar”. For someone who has lived in that part of the world, that is not at all surprising and also not indicative of extremism, but to most Western outside observers, and certainly advocates of secularization and western style women’s rights it is not comforting. At this same talk the Director of the MENA division for Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson-clearly a women, did not include anything significant about the role of women in her prepared comments. And when asked about it afterward her reply was acknowledgment of women’s participation in the Arab Spring – but nothing further-a bit of a shrug.

    I believe most also find it difficult to reconcile the image of Yemeni women in full balto and niqab stridently calling for Saleh’s resignation. The Western mind seems ill able to deal with such a seeming dichotomy, as they have long been fed, and swallowed, an image of utter female powerlessness in the Arab/Muslim world. It would also be rather unseemly for secular advocates to champion such women, for they aren’t also dispensing with their black coverings just yet. Highlighting to the West, once again, that it just isn’t about them anymore.

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