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Stepping forward or stepping back? An overview of Women’s rights in relation to the Arab Uprisings - Part 2

5th November 2012

By: In On Africa IOA


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The events which make up the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ mark a significant chapter in modern history. In less than two years, four dictators have been deposed, regimes are slowly being dismantled and it appears that North Africa is undergoing an ideological transformation of sorts. Calls for democracy and human rights are being heard and hopes for change are running high. Considering these immense transformations, the question arises as to what effect such changes will have on women of the Middle East and North Africa.

Part 1 of this discussion explored the role of women in the various uprisings as well as the rise of Islamism in the region and its potential impact on women. Continuing from that discussion, this paper looks into the issue of Western feminism in relation to the Arab world as well as issues affecting women which have not been given significant attention. As in Part 1, this paper will argue that women and women’s issues in the Middle East and North Africa are still viewed through an Orientalist, neo-colonialist lens.


Opening the debate on feminism

Included in the broader debate on women’s rights is the issue of feminism in relation to the Arab and broader Muslim world. Rushing to the fore were Western feminists to both congratulate and patronise the women of Arab Spring nations for their courage, bringing with them roadmaps and directives for women’s liberation. The portrayal of women’s action and involvement in the region as something new is, however, incorrect. Egyptian women, to name but one example, are no strangers to activism. Women such as Huda Sharaawi and Hamida Khalil (Egypt’s first female martyr of the 1919 revolt against British occupation) are well-known, their legacies revered for their participation in Egypt’s 1919 revolution. Zainab Al-Ghazali, another prominent figure who was imprisoned and brutally tortured under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in 1965 for her links to the Muslim Brotherhood,(2) is an example from a completely different pool of women (not feminist in nature) but active and progressive nonetheless. The influence of Al-Ghalzali was such that her weekly lectures at Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo were said to have brought in crowds of up to 3,000 people.(3) And indeed, Al-Ghazali did have a close affiliation to the Brotherhood and its founding father, Hassan al-Banna, yet this female voice was not silenced by the ‘Islamist’ party but rather encouraged and held in high esteem.(4)


Considering the legacies that these powerful women have left behind (and the legacies that many continue to build today) may help to explain why many Arab women refuse to accept the premises set forward by Western feminists. Feminism which often entails a loss of identity for Muslim and Arab women and encompasses ideals which insist that they must dress, behave or think in a certain way to liberate themselves. As Arab writer, Sahar Aziz, succinctly put it, empowered women are overlooked because:

    “Their empowered lives do not satisfy our craving to fulfil the stereotypes of the oppressed and subjugated Arab woman in need of saving by the West...By failing to cover the courageous efforts of the millions of women leaders who incrementally chip away at patriarchy, as opposed to bulldozing it with a sledge hammer, Western media exacerbates the underlying problem -- the objectification and infantilisation of Arab and Muslim women. And so when a bold voice that ’pokes the painful places’...we perk up in admiration for her willingness to break the silence. The silence is due to our deafness not the absence of voices.”(5)

Chandra Mohanty authored a piece in which she explained how discourses on women from third world countries were dominated by what she called the “hegemony of Western scholarship.”(6) Mohanty explains how, through this lens, diversity, context, and history are ignored. Mohanty points to a possible root cause:

    “This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and being "third world" (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimised, etc.). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions. The distinction between Western feminist re-presentation of women in the third world, and Western feminist self-presentation is a distinction of the same order as that made by some Marxists between the "maintenance" function of the housewife and the real "productive" role of wage labour, or the characterisation by developmentalists of the third world as being engaged in the lesser production of "raw materials" in contrast to the "real" productive activity of the First World. These distinctions are made on the basis of the privileging of a particular group as the norm or referent.”(7)

Representations and misrepresentations

Examining the points made by Aziz and Mohanty, the question arises: has there been an evolution in the way the world views Arab women, according to changing times, situations, and progress? 19th and early 20th century Orientalist artworks often carried distinct themes with common depictions (among both British and French artists) featuring harems of women sprawled out languidly on divans.(8) Though debateable to what degree, such representations had an impact on perceptions in the West of what the East was like. Edward Said, in Orientalism, expounded upon the modern distortions of the Arab world in Western media and entertainment but, unlike Mohanty, linked his discourse not only to the academic world but to the political and social spheres as well, touching on stronger issues, such as Imperialism, in the process.(9) There is an effort now to “reclaim identities,”(10) to reject Orientalist fantasies, to reshape the historical perception of Arab women as idle playthings and modern perceptions of perpetual repression and backwardness. Egyptian writer, Ahdaf Soueif, is one example of those attempting to tackle these imbalances.(11) Soueif skilfully addresses historical stereotypes in her fictional works (most notably her novel In the Eye of the Sun) and current concerns (such as United States (US) policy towards Egypt and sexual harassment in Egypt) in her factual pieces.(12)

The women of these uprisings have provided a new point of encouragement and inspiration for women within and out of the region. Together with this, it seems that the facade had faded, and gone are the days during which the likes of Queen Rania of Jordan or the wife of Syrian President, Asma al-Assaad, are seen as glamorous symbols of women’s rights, progress and the ‘modern-Muslim woman’. Then again, the question that begs to be answered is by whose standards were these women labelled as heroines of their time in the first place? Certainly not by the masses in their native countries who were well aware of the hypocrisy and corruption attached to these figures.(13)  Were such perceptions the result of Western feminism, which sees Islam as incompatible with progress and modernity? Vogue magazine ran a (now) notorious piece on Asma al-Asaad at the very outset of the Syrian unrest in 2011. Calling her modern and progressive and not mentioning anything distinctly Arab or Muslim about her, speaks volumes and leads one to wonder whether al-Asaad was seen in this light because she fitted so perfectly into the mould of a “Western woman.”(14)

The West has hailed Queen Rania ‘the Princess Diana of the Islamic world’, lauding her charitable works, keen sense of fashion (read Western sense of fashion) and modern outlook on women in Islam.(15) However, alongside the fairytale are facts which have been ignored. Despite the Queen’s talk of liberty and rights, Jordan is nonetheless a monarchy where freedom is severely curtailed, covert rendition programmes thrive,(16) and imprisonment is one of the penalties for criticising the royal family.(17) The Queen herself has been accused of corruption, including misappropriation of Jordanian land to her family. The importance of image may be noted here and may explain why the West gives little regard to female activists, intellectuals, and achievers in the Muslim world who do not conform to Western perceptions of ‘liberated women.’


The imposition of Western feminism is not a new phenomenon.  The West has a history of trying to liberate and empower women from Africa or the East by setting out a rigid blueprint which does not necessarily take into account the vast cultural diversity or historical contexts from which these women emerge. This stems from what Mohanty describes as defining women and the East as ‘Others’ or as peripheral while “(Western) man/humanism can represent him/itself as the centre. It is not the centre that determines the periphery, but the periphery that, in its boundedness, determines the centre.”(18)

A controversial, yet interesting, ‘reversal’ became evident in June 2012 when various ‘cover-up campaigns’ were introduced in conservative Gulf States such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. These campaigns aimed to educate foreigners on appropriate forms of dress, keeping in mind the character of these states along with distinct cultural norms.(19) The campaigns highlighted growing polarisation between East and West which has become more evident and topical in recent years, especially in light of discriminatory policies against Muslims in a number of European countries (which include the banning of the hijab or the construction of minarets in Muslim places of worship).(20) Viewed in light of the present discussion, these campaigns may be seen as 1) a challenge to liberal values and customs which some have claimed as an absolute standard for all to follow, and 2) a rebuttal of the assumption that all Middle Eastern women are forced to be conservative (seeing as these campaigns were initiated and carried through by women).(21) This brings us to another point: that liberation may be relative and that diversity of culture or religion needs to be taken into account. The aim or result of liberation should not be the creation of a homogenous society adhering to a homogenous set of values.

A pertinent point in this regard is that the oppression of women exists everywhere, in different forms, and is definitely not confined to Arab or Muslim countries. It is not one confined to specific regime types or developed/developing countries either. An examination of ‘liberated’, developed nations will illustrate this point. In France, cabaret dancers recently went on strike to demand higher wages.(22) In considering such professions, one wonders whether this is not a striking example of society telling women that they can be nothing more? And furthermore, an indication of a society that has failed the women who are forced into such trades?(23) In Amsterdam, some argue that the legalisation of prostitution has increased women’s access to protection and social institutions (such as healthcare or police services). However, many may also argue that legalising prostitution has institutionalised the exploitation of women, sealing the fate of such women completely. In the US, the spotlight was recently placed on the appalling statistics detailing the rape of women within the US armed services,(24) and in a completely different landscape was the case of 23-year old Feng Jianmei who was forced by Chinese authorities to abort her 7-month old foetus in June 2012. All these raise serious issues around the rights of women in general. In confining the problem to a specific region, religion or regime-type, we ignore the bigger picture, and that is that there is immense progress to be made in the field of women’s rights as a whole.

The broader picture

Through the preoccupation with the issues detailed in this paper – Islamism, feminism and theoretical rights to freedom, participation and democracy – greater issues affecting women have slipped into the background. There is scant clarity on the economic woes faced by women in North Africa and parts of the Middle East. Have rising political parties been clear on issues such as improvement of access to healthcare and education, improvement of literacy rates, female employment (or male employment for that matter considering the global economic crisis), or plans to deal with rising food prices and inflation? Moreover, what will ensure the quality of social services in these countries?

One salient issue deserving further attention would be the impact of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) latest proposed loan to Egypt. Though IMF Head, Christine Lagarde, gave no details on what conditions would be attached to such a loan, she confirmed that conditions would indeed be attached.(25) History is rife with examples of the detrimental impact of such conditions on recovering states (whether from a military invasion, transition to democracy, or even natural disaster).(26) The imposition of neo-liberal reforms on a host of countries from Iraq and Lebanon to South Africa and Sri Lanka – read deregulation, privatisation, cuts in social spending, foreign investment – translates into ‘growth’ for the benefit of a small elite and rarely trickles down to those in need.(27) Thus, one should be wary of conflating economic growth with democracy or even peace. So, in turn, an important question that needs to be asked is what will such a loan mean for Egypt, which already sits under a US$ 35 billion (28) external debt?

Instead of focusing on the length of women’s burka’s (the New York Times actually ran a piece on the wife of Egyptian President, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, detailing her dressing and the length of her head-covering among other things,(29) which was echoed by others)(30) or whether the Islamist Brotherhood in Egypt will impose a ban on bikinis at Sharm-el-Sheikh beaches, the media would do well to take a deeper look into the above-mentioned issues. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during South Africa’s post-Apartheid era, succinctly noted: “...freedom translates into having a supply of clean water, having electricity on tap; being  able to live in a decent home and have a good job; to be able to send your children to school and to have accessible health care. I mean, what's the point of having made this transition [to democracy] if the quality of life of these people is not enhanced and improved?”(31)

Concluding remarks

Democracy may turn out to be a hollow ideal if it does not lead to actual social change on the ground. A relevant concern would be whether Arab Spring nations will be able to address their socio-economic woes. In shifting away from purely theoretical discourse, we may consider the following in exploring steps toward women’s empowerment in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen:

If Government’s are indeed serious about broadening the spectrum of women’s rights, an important step forward would be consultation and engagement with women and women’s groups. Active engagement with women from different social classes, age groups, religious affiliations, and political leanings would go a long way in understanding what the needs of women actually are in these societies. The recognition and appreciation of diversity (and hence, diverse circumstances) is crucial here. To elaborate, whereas a woman from rural Egypt or Tunisia may be concerned with Government support for agricultural development, her urbanised counterpart may be more interested in Government plans to open up job sectors which are still male-dominated. In failing to take cognisance of such diversity, Western feminist ‘proposals’ on empowerment do not address intricate, practical challenges that women in the region face.

Creative thinking is necessary in this regard and, considering the frail economies in the region, the initiation of small, sustainable projects should be explored. While Governments do have immense responsibilities in this regard, civil society has an equally important role to play in rebuilding these nations. There is perhaps no better time to mobilise civil society than the present given the current enthusiasm and culture of activism in the region. Rather than adopting a ‘top-down’ approach, the emphasis should be upon mutual cooperation and consultation between state and society. Here, indigenous knowledge and skill (and specifically the knowledge and skills of women) may be harnessed to assist with socio-economic development. A look at the South Korean system of Saemaul Undong could provide a model for nations in North Africa seeking to alleviate rural poverty. Implemented at a time when South Korea’s rural areas suffered severe poverty and also at a time when the country was suffering from the after-effects of war, the project brought about remarkable progress and development. Not only did the project address the unequal standards or living between rural and urban areas but it also modernised the country’s agricultural structures and left parts of the population with growth that they themselves could maintain.

At an external level, media and academia should be asking: how do women in North Africa and the Middle East define “women’s rights?” There needs to be a recognition that perceptions of women’s rights (indeed the very meaning of the concept) in the developed West may differ greatly to perceptions of such rights held by women in the Arab world. Differing needs will then become evident. To shift away from tired, inaccurate Orientalist notions, progress made by women within the Arab world must be acknowledged. Together with this, stereotypes need to be challenged. The fervent contributions made by these women during the various uprisings should give way to a better understanding of women in the region where they may be viewed as capable and active, rather than submissive, perpetually oppressed beings. While gross human rights violations in the region should definitely not be ignored, it would be wise for the international community to spread its gaze more evenly and consider the treatment of women as a global issue.

Special thanks to Quraysha Ismail Sooliman in conjuction with iTV for development of the topic at hand.

Written by Raeesah Cassim Cachalia (1)


(1) Contact Raeesah Cassim Cachalia through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (
(2) Al-Ghazali, Z., 1994. Return of the Pharaoh: Memoirs in Nasir’s prison. The Islamic Foundation: Leicester.
(3) Esposito, J.L., (ed.)., 2004. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford University Press: USA.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Aziz, S., ‘Does radical feminism advance Arab women's rights?’, Huffington Post, 1 May 2012,
(6) Mohanty, C., 1988. Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Feminist Review, (30, pp. 61–88.
(7) Ibid.
(8) See for example paintings such as: Pool in a Harem by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1876),; Women by John Frederick Lewis,; The Turkish Bath by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1982),
(9) Edward, S., 1978. Orientalism. Penguin: London.
(10) Darraj, S.M., ‘Understanding the other sister: The case of Arab feminism’, Monthly Review, March 2002,
(11) Soueif, A., ‘This year let's celebrate … the women of Egypt's revolution’, The Guardian, 8 March 2012,
(12) Soueif, A., ‘Our revolt is not Obama's’, The Guardian, 21 May 2011,
(13) ‘Bedouin tribes accuse Jordan's Queen Rania of corruption’, The Guardian, 15 February 2011,;  “In the case of Queen Rania of Jordan it is also obvious that there is far more at work than popular resentment of the glamorous, tweeting image that has attracted such acclaim in the West. For several years, some of the chants heard at soccer matches between Jordan's two highest profile teams, al-Faisali (a symbol for Jordanians of East Bank origin) and al-Wihdat (a rallying point for Jordanians of Palestinian origin) have included calls for the king to divorce her.” Brand, L.A., Kaki, R. and Stacher, J., ‘First ladies as focal points for discontent’, Foreign Policy, 16 February 2011,
(14) Awad, Z., ‘Blush is off Syria's 'Rose of the Desert’, Al Jazeera, 19 April 2012,; The partiality of the Vogue piece on Asmaa al-Assaad and the partiality of these perceptions in general may be found in this excerpt: “Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Website says, “the Syrian Government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark.”
(15) ‘Islam’s royal revolutionary’, The Guardian, 11 November 2001,
(16) ‘Jordan: Renditions - New report says Jordan is key hub in secret CIA programme’, Amnesty International, 24 July 2006,
(17) Barnes-Dacey, J., ‘Jordan's King Abdullah has failed to grasp the power of the Arab spring’, The Guardian, 19 April 2012,
(18) Mohanty, C., 1988. Under Western eyes: Feminists scholarship and colonial discourses. Feminist Review, 30, 61–88.
(19) Fenton, J., ‘Cover-up campaign hits Gulf streets’, Al Jazeera, 14 June 2012,
(20) Cachalia, R.C., ‘Staring into the abyss: Europe’s fall to the far-right and its impact on Africa’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 16 January 2012,
(21) Fenton, J., ‘Cover-up campaign hits Gulf streets’, Al Jazeera, 14 June 2012,
(22) ‘Paris exotic dancers strike, say wages "miserable"’, Reuters, 16 May 2012,
(23) Chrisafis, A., ‘How prostitution became France’s hottest social issue’, The Guardian, 24 September 2012,
(24) Over 19,000 men and women were sexually assaulted in 2010 according to US State Department figures. ‘Military rape: The invisible war’, Al Jazeera, 3 July 2012,
(25) ‘Egypt requests IMF loan’, Al Jazeera, 22 August 2012,
(26) Klein, N., 2007. The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster dapitalism. Allen Lane: London.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Hanieh, A., ‘Egypt's ‘Orderly Transition’? International aid and the rush to structural adjustment’, Jadaliyya, 29 May 2012,
(29) El Sheikh, M. and Kirkpatrick, D.D., ‘Egypt’s everywoman finds her place is in the Presidential Palace’, The New York Times, 27 June 2012,
(30) Serageldin, S., ‘Islamist First Family in Egypt: Style or substance?’, Samia Serageldin’s blog, 29 July 2012,
(31) Klein, N., 2007. The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Allen Lane: London.


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