Peace X Peace Forums: Women as Actors, Not Instruments
Peace X Peace Forums: Women and the Arab Spring
Welcome to the first Peace X Peace Forum! These forums, which we hope to host regularly, will take on pressing issues in the world of peacebuilding and gender. This time, we have gathered women from around the Middle East – from Egypt to Tunisia and beyond – to discuss how women have influenced the Arab Spring, and the impact it has had on them. We hope you enjoy this discussion and add your own thoughts in the comments!
A Step to Implement Democracy: Transforming Women from Political Tools to Political Actors
By Roua Seghaier
“This window for change would have not been open without the participation of women, and there cannot be a culmination for the revolution without the revival of this female commitment.”
Democracy, considered either the most viable form of government or the lesser evil, was the light at the end of the tunnel of power monopoly for the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region. The concept of democracy itself was rather authoritarian in its birth, before it transformed to its latest form: the Greek example of rule by an elite group of male citizens, whose welfare was sustained by a politically stifled and suppressed large slave population and also by women.
Reflecting upon the origins of the dominance of males in modern politics, patriarchy historically emerges from everything besides rational judgment. Or in other words, is due to sheer coincidence. We would have been born into a matriarchal society had the Greeks decided that government should be ran like a household, and therefor by women. Ancient thought decided otherwise. And yet in the pursuit of the democratization of the MENA region, no doubt women as well as men have equally participated in the Arab Spring uprisings. Nevertheless, a significant downfall of this female participation is noticeable in the post-revolution stage, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
This collapse of the participation of at least half of society in the new state-building and political reforms increases worries about the effectiveness of the Arab Spring itself. The Arab world was thought of as culturally exceptional and exclusive of democracy up until recently. This idea lost its credibility with the breakdown of the post-colonial regimes in the Arab Spring region. Nevertheless, the exceptionality concept is almost resuscitated with the lack of female contribution: Was the democracy sought by so many males and females a digression to elitist form in its Greek example?
On its own, being a female is a loud political statement. During the French colonization of Algeria, raping native women was a symbolic breakdown of the resistance, an implication on its failure, a proclamation of the invader’s power. And on the opposite pole, in French republicanism, denying Muslim females the right to wear the veil is a form of resistance to the values of the Orient and protection of French national feeling. The female gender has had historically so many political inferences (the woman as a symbol of homeland, nation-state, resistance, dignity, etc.) and challenges (poverty, illiteracy, chauvinism, etc.) not only in the Arab region. Women were long used — and still are — as political utensils, and now, in the transitional period, is high time to transform Arab women from political instruments to politically functional actors.
To implement the female role in public policymaking and political activism, reforms need to be constructed on both the cultural and political levels, addressing the miscues in social behavior and the loopholes of the jurisdiction.
It is no secret that the recent empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen had much to do with the decrease of female participation in politics. The traditional authority of the religious figures discouraged many women and eased the worries of some. Either way, the two different currents of female thought were slowly removed from the political scene.
To bring them back, it is important to understand that the Islamic and Arab cultures did produce important female political figures. The concern about implementation of sharia law is largely due to conceptual mis-communications. A civil law needs to exist apart from Sharia because the laws and freedoms we collectively call for need to be defined with a juridical language. For instance, when we think of “social justice” or “equality,” we may be picturing different practical actions deriving from the same theoretical concept.
The unification of pro-change and pro-tradition women is crucially important, since females are the first beneficiaries of their participation in the new government. It is insanity that numerous women stand against their own rights. We need to come to the realization of our common goal that can only be achieved through consensus, and finally move up the ladder from being an unconscious group to an organized one. The example of Yemen is very relevant: Women were not alienated from power by law, but rather by traditional religious authority. They wrote the “Document of Women” to push for 30% representation in the parliament, but due to lack of organization, this attempt failed.
On the other hand, in the Tunisian case, this alienation was politically staged. The parity law in the election lists did not do much to advance female candidates, because their names appeared at the bottom of the list, making it hard and nearly impossible for the quota to encompass them.
The cultural socialization of females as political actors will take a relatively long time, and yet, political reform needs to take place immediately. To assure female participation, it is sufficient to have the rule of law: a disinterested nation state, with unitary actors perusing essentially the same goals of national interest regardless of the form of government or type of economic organization. The Arab Spring goals are still vivid in the memory; they were unitary and comprehensive of all citizens. And yet, those goals shifted. Straight after the escape of Ben Ali, women were granted their full equal rights with men, and yet after the election of the predominantly Islamist National Constituent Assembly, those rights were once again denied, and taken one step further. Questions were raised about female circumcision, burqa, and polygamy. This phenomenon shows how easily people take the shape of the authority that governs them.
Nonetheless, if the Arab uprisings have proved anything, it is that we have the willingness and create the opportunity for change. And this would have not been possible outside the Arab culture that so often takes blame for the political oppression. This window for change would have not been open without the participation of women, and there cannot be a culmination for the revolution without the revival of this female commitment. Finally, believing in a strong bond between the language and the political culture, revolution is, after all, a female noun.
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.