There is no shortage of iconic imagery associated with the Arab Spring: Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, sparking the revolution that took the Middle East by storm; Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, bleeding and humiliated in his final moments; a young woman forcibly dragged through the streets of Cairo in her denim jeans and blue bra by Egyptian police.
But the upheaval is far from over. It continues to rage in Sudan and Algeria, and its aftershocks are still being felt across the entire region. The various revolutions that have shaken the Arab world to its core have deposed rulers, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions, and saw some countries cease to exist as political entities.
But this fascinating phenomenon, which has been rattling the Middle East for almost nine years, has another dimension: While the men are off fighting, it is the women who are left to pick up the pieces and build new lives for themselves and their children.
Reality, it seems, has demanded that these women take action. In Syria, Kurdish women fought the Islamic State (IS) alongside the men, and are now building new villages and a new social and political order. In Egypt, women and men have established a support system for victims of sexual assault, pushing an issue once considered taboo into the limelight. Morocco has allowed women into the traditionally patriarchal clergy and judiciary; and in the Persian Gulf female activists risk arrest and even torture, but continue to demand equality and freedom.
When the fighting finally wanes and the dust settles, will the Middle East see men trying to turn back progress and send women back their familiar role as housewives whose sole purpose is to cook, clean and care for the children? In some places, at least, the changes that have been set in motion are too profound for things to ever be the same again.
Syria: Women take matters into their own hands
On March 10, 2017, a large group of Kurdish women, backed by volunteers from all over the world, laid the cornerstone for a new village in northeast Syria. Jinwar – which means “women’s territory” in Kurdish – is a women-only commune built a few miles from Qamishli, near the country’s border with Turkey.
Hermel, a local plant also known as Syrian rue, was chosen as the emblem of Jinwar, which was formed as a refuge for those displaced by IS and the Syrian civil war. The symbolism is jarring. Less than 100 miles from the village, IS tortured and killed men, women and children who violated the strict Sharia laws of the pseudo-caliphate founded by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2013. The hermel plant, which is used by the local population as a remedy, is believed to have the power to heal wounds and remove negative thoughts, fears, and bad memories.
Jinwar is one of a kind, but it reflects a wider, fascinating trend: In stark contrast to the horrors of war and the waves of radical Islam crashing through the region, Rojava, the Kurdish autonomy in northeast Syria, is shaping up to be a liberal, secular region, striving to make gender equality the rule by which women are full partners in the government, the security forces, and all other state institutions.
“Kurdish society is built differently than Arab society, which is heavily influenced by radical Islam,” explained Kurdish-Syrian activist Badriya Khalil, who currently resides in Germany.
“In our society, women are free. Married or single, a woman doesn’t have to dress modestly. A Kurdish man needs a woman to be his partner, because we have a lot to overcome together,” she said.
Kurdish society sees the woman as the head of the household if her husband is fighting a war or is imprisoned, said Khalil, “so she is responsible for both her children and her homeland. This is why our women were the first to rise up against IS. We’re fighters and we have a responsibility, just like Israeli women.”
Kamal Sido, a Kurdish interpreter, translator, and researcher who divides his time between Germany and Syrian Kurdistan, said that the evolution of Rojava is the result of the ideology introduced by Abdullah Öcalan, who established the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
Founded in 1978, the PKK is a Kurdish far-left militant and political organization based in Turkey and Iraq. The group has been in conflict with Turkey since 1984 with the aim of achieving an independent Kurdish state. It later changed its demand to that of equal rights and Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
Öcalan himself was arrested in Nairobi in 1999 by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency. Originally sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when Turkey abolished the death penalty as part of its efforts to be admitted into the European Union. Öcalan argues that the PKK is now strictly a political movement, but the group’s conflict with Turkey has claimed over 40,000 lives, prompting the United States, Britain, Turkey, the European Union, and NATO to designate it as a terrorist organization.
Sido explained that according to Öcalan’s philosophy, “Everyone should resist oppression – men and women. That’s what happened when the war [in Syria] began, the women fought alongside the men against IS.”
“But if the West doesn’t support the democratic and liberal Rojava, despair and radical Islam will also prevail among the Kurds,” he said. “That’s why this experiment has to succeed.”
Women’s villages extend beyond just the Kurdish region in Syria, and not all of them were formed for ideological reasons. In many parts of Syria, entire villages are now devoid of men. Many were killed in battle; others, fearing conscription or retaliation, have fled in search of a better future outside Syria, leaving the women to put the pieces of the bloodied country back together.
These women, who were raised in a society that indoctrinated them to believe their only destiny was to be wives and mothers, are now rebuilding their lives and their villages with their bare hands, becoming their families’ primary breadwinners.
There are many volunteers who work in the war-torn countryside in Syria, teaching the women the skills they need to reorganize their lives without men.
One such initiative is the Basma Project, which operates in an area near Aleppo. The project teaches women how to produce cheeses and yogurts from goat’s milk, and market their products so as to support their families.
Today, many Syrian women hold key positions in government and in the business community for one simple reason – the men are gone. Whether this change will endure once the Syrian war ends remains to be seen.
Tunisia: The Jasmine Revolution and constitutional feminism
Unlike Syria, Yemen, Libya and Egypt, the considerably smaller Tunisia is hailed as the Arab Spring’s biggest success story.
This may be a lone and very fragile triumph, but so far, Tunisia has been able to avoid the pitfalls of civil war and terrorist attacks, and it has even begun laying the foundations of democracy – a rare phenomenon in the Middle East.
Most recently, the small North African country sent shockwaves across the Arab and Muslim worlds when it changed its inheritance law to allow equal rights for women.
Islamic law states that men are entitled to double the inheritance of women, and secular laws in many Arab countries draw their inspiration from the religious edict.
This was the case in Tunisia as well until November 2018, when its government passed the groundbreaking legislation. The move was strongly condemned in local Islamic circles, and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, denounced it as a violation of the edicts of both the Quran and the Sunna — the body of literature that prescribes the social and legal customs and practices of the Islamic community.
The revolutionary law, backed by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, was the result of years of advocacy by many feminist organizations. The inheritance law was followed by more revolutionary legislation, including the repeal of a law that protected rapists who married their victims.
Tunisia has always been unusual in the Arab world in terms of its treatment of women. Tunis banned polygamy in 1956 when it gained its independence from France, and most women study and work. While in most Arab nations the fight for gender equally has sustained blow after blow, Tunisian women not only led the Jasmine Revolution, but were also able to retain their power in its wake. Now, many women are very politically active — including in the radical Islamic parties.
In August 2013, when both secular and Islamist protesters demonstrated in the squares of Tunis and the revolution was clearly imminent, intrepid female activists on both sides of the political spectrum were unafraid to talk to the media. They explained their positions eloquently and persuasively, illustrating just how different the status of women is in Tunisia compared with other Arab countries.
It is this fundamental difference, which seems inherent to the country, which may explain the modest yet solid success of the budding Tunisian democracy.
Morocco: Social activists, preachers, and religious judges
Moroccan Health Ministry employees who came to work on May 1 were shocked to find feminine hygiene products stained with fake blood plastered on the walls of the ministry building in the capital city of Rabat. This was the work of a feminist group called the Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms, which was protesting Morocco’s strict anti-abortion laws.
In Morocco, terminating a pregnancy is allowed only with the spouse’s permission, or if it is determined that the pregnancy “places the woman’s health and well-being at risk.”
This was not a sporadic provocation. In recent years, appalling cases of rape and forced marriage between victim and rapist have led to a series of demonstrations and acts of protest, as both women and men have refused to remain silent.
Alongside the secular feminist movements, another very significant feminist movement — one quite different from all the others, and which has the potential to appeal to the more traditional Moroccan society — is making itself heard. “Islamic feminism” seeks to empower women by further delving into the classical Islamic texts and the study of the primary sources interpreting them.
In Morocco, too, tens of thousands of men and women took to the streets in 2011-2012, demanding reforms, all while many other young men and women joined extremist Islamic organizations and carried out terrorist attacks in the kingdom and beyond.
In 2003, in the wake of a gruesome terrorist attack in Casablanca, King Mohammed VI and his government made the decision to enlist the women of the kingdom to fight extremism. Since then, Morocco has been training the Murshidat, or “guides,” in Arabic — female religious preachers who give sermons in mosques, schools, youth centers, and prisons.
The controversial decision to use women to combat extremism had raised quite a few eyebrows in the conservative Muslim country, but the program has been steadily growing since the onset of the Arab Spring.
Two years ago, one of the Murshidat was even invited to the king’s court to give a sermon during the holy month of Ramadan, something unprecedented in the Muslim world. In this case there was a clear overlap between the royal family’s interests and the desire to advance the status of women in the North African country.
Mohammad Zeinabi, editor-in-chief of Morocco’s Global Digital Media Group, explained that Moroccan society “is a traditional society, yet it is less traditional than many other Arab countries. We have a horizon for development and change, but because the king also has religious authority, reforms are pursued in moderation. Here and there you have people who voice opposition [to change], but you won’t find very strong opposition.”
Zeinabi noted that like in Tunisia, Morocco’s judiciary is currently debating revising its inheritance laws. Rabat has already passed in 2018 legislation recognizing sexual harassment and violence against women as gender discrimination.
Morocco still has a long way to go until it reaches gender equality, but international bodies have acknowledged that the changes that have taken place in Morocco are very significant.
Egypt: A tango with progress
On May 10, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying that a woman cannot leave the house without her husband’s permission and may be beaten as long as no bones are broken. On May 20, he made another controversial statement, declaring that the idea of gender equality runs contrary to the “laws of nature.”
His statements sparked an uproar in Egypt, and for good reason — the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, who heads the al-Azhar Mosque and by extension al-Azhar University in Cairo, is considered by many Muslims to be the highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought and jurisprudence, and is responsible for official religious matters alongside the Grand Mufti of Egypt.
El-Tayeb’s remarks were especially grating given that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has made statements supporting the inclusion of women in public life in Egypt. The outrage and pressure proved so great that on June 5 el-Tayeb retracted his decree, calling for the criminalization of domestic abuse.
Similar religious decrees, cementing a man’s right to “educate” his wife using violence or that give him absolute control over her personal freedoms, like leaving the house, used to exist in Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and news of extreme cases would always shock the West.
But now, this is clearly a radical, obsolete and highly unpopular view. It is also clear that Cairo is trying to distance itself from the legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated as a terrorist organization in Egypt, and lead the change with respect to the status of women in Arab society, something el-Sissi often addresses in public statements.
For the first time, eight women serve as senior government ministers and 80 women are members of parliament. On this year’s International Women’s Day, el-Sissi issued several presidential decrees concerning women’s empowerment and also enacted laws seeking to put an end to domestic violence and child marriages, and grant rights to divorced women.
Omar Zachariah, a Cairo-based scholar focusing on Israel, said that in recent years there has been a significant change in public awareness of harassment and violence.
“Before, women would remain silent, but today they complain and this issue is discussed openly, which deters the harassers,” Zachariah said.
When the Arab Spring began in Egypt on January 25, 2011, the world was shocked by footage of Lara Logan, a CBS reporter who was sexually assaulted by a mob in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The graphic images brought global attention to the fact that Egyptian women suffer from relentless sexual harassment ranging from verbal pestering to assault and gang rape.
This led to the creation of HarassMap, a nonprofit organization that strives to reduce the acceptance of sexual harassment in Egypt, and helps victims who choose to file police complaints. HarassMap is Egypt’s first independent initiative to tackle the issue.
There is no doubt that in the post-Arab Spring era, public discourse regarding sexual harassment and rape has become more prominent and revealing than before, yet the majority of cases still go unreported, says Haysam Hassanain, an Egyptian student attending Tel Aviv University.
“You can definitely see change. There are more MPs, more ministers, greater emphasis on the stories of successful women, but the majority of women still suffer from sexual harassment, female circumcision and lack of equal employment opportunities,” said Hassanain.
Dr. Mira Tzoref, a Middle East historian at Tel Aviv University, argued that the changes introduced by the Arab Spring have made their mark on the ground, ranging from public backlash over Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz’s decision in 2012 to dismiss Cairo Opera House Director Ines Abdel-Dayem, appointed by his predecessor, to children’s literature on gender equality.
“We’re hyperactive and we want to see immediate changes, but the processes leading to gender equality don’t happen overnight. The Egyptian Opera had a female director and the thing that set off the protesters, already demonstrating against Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, was the fact that she was dismissed for no apparent reason. I think it’s dramatic that a woman set the agenda of Egyptian high culture,” Tzoref said, referring to the deposed Muslim Brotherhood leader who recently died in the courtroom.
“The appointments of female governors, ministers, marriage registrars, are not without their impact. Sometimes change comes slowly, but there is no stopping it now. [Egypt] now has women in key decision-making positions in culture, society and politics,” Tzoref noted.
The Persian Gulf: Driver’s licenses and missing princesses
In June 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stunned the world with a groundbreaking decree that allowed women to drive after decades during which the mere mention of the possibility was taboo.
In the fall, Riyadh announced that women will now be able to attend sporting events, concerts and movies, and last week, the kingdom announced future plans to ease restrictions on women’s ability to travel overseas without male permission — all revolutionary steps for conservative Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi crown prince — catering to the younger generation’s growing demand for change — was lauded by the West as a revolutionary and a reformer, and some have even hailed him as a feminist.
But the less savory aftermath failed to garner equal international attention: Many Saudi women who had fought for equal rights for years and even supported the young, energetic heir to the throne found themselves in jail, and some were even tortured.
Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the most outspoken activists on the issue of Saudi women’s driving rights, was arrested in 2018 and later tortured. A political prisoner, she is facing charges of “endangering national security,” which carry a life sentence.
Other Saudi women pushing for change have found themselves painted into a corner, as well.
Saudi journalist Neevin (alias), said that despite the easing of restrictions, real freedom is still a long way away for Saudi women.
“We still can’t travel abroad without the approval of a male relative. I can study, find a job and make a good living, but my husband, father or even my little brother will always be able to forbid me from traveling abroad to a professional conference,” she said.
Neevin is aware that Saudi Arabia now has more female than male university students, but these achievements are far from satisfying for women like her, who crave freedom and independence. The horrifying stories of Saudi girls and women who flee overseas to escape forced marriage or domestic violence illustrate her point all too well.
Sisters Maha and Wafa al-Subaie, for example, fled Saudi Arabia and are seeking asylum. The two are currently in hiding in Georgia and, fearing extradition to Riyadh, have appealed for protection from the United Nations refugee agency. They say the Saudi government has suspended their passports, trapping them in Georgia.
Eighteen-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun made headlines when she fled to Bangkok, running away from her family, who she says subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. She posted videos on social media pleading with Thai authorities not to deport her. The Twitter-led campaign to grant her asylum prompted the UNHCR to step in and ask Australia to resettle her.
The story of women in Persian Gulf states is a complex one. Between 1990 and 2018, women’s participation in the labor force increased from 29 percent to 41%; the United Arab Emirates’ cabinet approved a bill guaranteeing equal pay for men and women; and across the region, women have joined governments and government institutions, often in key positions.
This revolution is largely led by women from the ruling families, but only with the blessing of the men, the Emir of Abu Dhabi and UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, along with the Emirati prime minister, Emir of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
But women are fleeing from glamorous Dubai as well.
The latest to have tried is Princess Latifa of Dubai. According to media reports, the 32-year-old spent seven years planning her failed escape from the Gulf state. She has not been seen or heard from since she was grabbed by armed men from a yacht about 30 miles off the coast of India in early March.
One must remember that much of the change in the Gulf mindset stems from the various emirs’ desire to project a progressive and clean image vis-à-vis the West. But while women hold senior positions in the government and the business sector, and some even become high-ranking members of security forces, polygamy is still very common in the UAE, and the family patriarch can still prevent his daughter from traveling, studying or working.
Winds of change
So what does the future hold for the Middle East? The Arab Spring has, without a doubt, introduced significant changes with respect to the status of women in the Arab world.
Middle Eastern women took to the streets with flags, signs, stones, and sometimes even weapons, demanding change for their country and for themselves. They continued to refuse to return to their traditional place in the home even long after the revolutions subsided.
These women left policymakers little choice. Facing increasing pressure from secular and religious feminist movements and demonstrations, the Middle Eastern leadership has come to understand that these women are not going anywhere. Changes had to be made.
Arab women’s struggle for freedom and equality is far from over, but it is abundantly clear to all that there is no going back on the reforms paid for with blood, sweat, and tears.
The struggle for women’s liberation, which began in the late 19th century, will continue. And there are enough women in the Middle East to make sure it is successful.
This article was adapted from the original Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.