Professor Mervat Hatem is a professor of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Hatem has written extensively about gender and politics in the Middle East and in North America. Her work examines the phenomenon of Egyptian state feminism, the impact of economic and political liberalization on Arab and Egyptian women, and the convergence of Islamist and secular views on gender.
This interview was produced as part of America Abroad’s program on Women’s Rights After the Arab Spring.
Rob Sachs (RS): What is your general assessment of how the plight of women has changed since the uprisings in the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring?
Mervat Hatem (MH): Women have, from the very unfolding of the Arab Spring, played a very visible and active role. It simply confirms the historical role that they played at an important political juncture in the history of their societies. Women in the Middle East played an important role in the anti-colonial struggle and were the beneficiaries of new rights, as well as suffrage in post-colonial societies, which were as a result of all of these accomplishments. It is not really a surprise for them to appear as visible actors in the unfolding of the Arab Spring.
Obviously, with the changes associated with the protest movements that unfolded as part of the Arab Spring, some of these roles have also changed. The challenge of authority, as well as the changing relations between different groups as a result of the revolution, has also revealed some of the issues that women continue to want addressed in these societies. Part of that is relations between genders. In other words, you can argue that the issues that have surfaced as a result of the challenge or the re-definition of these power relations in societies have revealed the need to work on a re-definition of the relations that exist between men and women in the public arena, as well as in some of the issues that have not been addressed up until that point.
RS: Have there been instances where the role of women has been diminished or the rights of women have been diminished because of the Arab Spring? Whereas, there was hope that there would be more equality?
MH: Women expected to be able to benefit from the changing relations of power in society. That of course is a process that takes a long time to address. Some of the results of the Arab Spring have pushed forward some issues that these societies had not addressed until that point in time. For instance, sexual harassment has surfaced as one of the key issues that the Arab Spring underlined. In the process of trying to re-define the relations of power in these societies, these kinds of tensions and the relations between men and women, especially as it relates to the issue of sexual harassment in the streets, became issues that were clearly in need of being addressed. This was an issue that particularly became visible and prominent in the Egyptian case. Sexual harassment was one issue. Another issue was the re-definition of power relations among the different groups. Of course, the issue of the way, for instance, Islamist groups defined the appropriate roles of women, that also became an important issue that needed to be addressed. In other words, it became clear that different groups in society defined the appropriate roles of women in different ways.
As the liberals wanted very much to push forward for a more visible and a more active role for women, some of the Islamist groups were not as excited about the idea of moving in that direction. Clearly, there were different expectations about the roles that women were going to play in the changed societies that basically developed as a result of the Arab Spring.
RS: You mentioned Egypt there. What about places like Tunisia, or Turkey, or even in the Gulf States like Kuwait? How has the experience differed there for women when you have different forms of government and some directly involved in the protest like in Tunisia, or some on the side of it like in Kuwait?
MH: As a result of the rationalist movement in Tunisia in 1956, women were given rights that were ahead of their counterparts in other parts of the region. The same can be said about Turkey, as well. In Turkey, for instance, Sharia did not play an important role in the definition of the rights of women in the family. A secular, civil law governed the rules between men and women in the family.
Sharia wasn’t allowed to play an important role in the determination of the rights that men and women had in the family.
In Tunisia, there was the outright outlawing of polygamy and the equalization of the rights that men and women had in divorce. These were unusual. The cases of Turkey, as well as Tunisia, were not typical in the Middle East. These particular laws were not really challenged by the rise of Islamist groups to power.
They respected very much these laws and did not try and reverse them. In contrast, there was a backlash against women in this arena. In other words, as far as personal status laws that governed marriage, divorce, as well as the custody of children in places like Libya and Egypt.
In the Gulf, I don’t think the Arab Spring has had the kind of effect that could be seen in North Africa as well as in, let’s say, Yemen. In other words, there was no challenge of the relations of power that governed the relations between different classes, between the rulers and ruled. This is largely because the oil-producing states of the Gulf opted for buying off any opposition that might exist in those societies against the forms of government that was in place.
The exception, of course, is the case of Bahrain, where basically Saudi Arabia intervened in an alliance with the monarchy to put down the protest movement that wanted to equalize the relations between a majority that is Shiites and a monarchy that was Sunni and ruled over that majority.
Perhaps the Bahraini case is the only case where the Arab Spring- the effects of the Arab Spring – were felt in that part of the Middle East. It was atypical, meaning that no other protest movements emerged to challenge relations of power in other parts of that region, the Gulf region, that is.
Because specifically these governments opted for buying off the opposition by offering packages of economic reforms largely designed to address some of the issues that could have been used by the opposition groups to mobilize against the monarchies.
RS: When you look at the Arab Spring and what’s been most effective as a catalyst, has it been social media? Has it been protesting? Has it been getting into the parliament and changing the constitution? What is the best means for women? What has proven to be the best means for women to be a catalyst for change, a driver for change? What has proven not to be as effective?
MH: Many commentators on gender relations and the way they were affected by the Arab Spring tend to emphasize the negative effects that the Arab Spring has had. I disagree with that particular view largely because the Arab Spring actually undermined the accomplishments that women have achieved in the last 60 years, especially in areas like in education and in public work. Also, in the way that women have used their political rights, meaning that even though women’s expectations about acquiring new rights, perhaps better representation in the political arena than the ones that existed before the Arab Spring.
For instance, I mentioned the issue of sexual harassment and the need to address that issue, which had not been addressed up until that point. Also, the issue of dignity, the issue of respecting the rights of young people in particular and who had their own sets of grievances as a result of unemployment and as a result of basically not being given the kinds of opportunities, or the kind of say in shaping their own societies.
The point to remember is that if one looks at the role that women have played not just in the Arab Spring, but even in the Islamist groups, that rose to power in many parts of the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring, one is struck by the fact that women were everywhere. They belonged to the liberal opposition. They belonged to Islamist groups. They were very visible in the different arenas. They expected to get more rights. Maybe they were not able to realize that goal, but that would be a gross misrepresentation to then generalize across that very large part of the world in a homogenous way by saying that somehow women lost out as a result of the Arab Spring, or that women were able to achieve new goals.
The fact of the matter is the picture was very uneven. There are some places in which they made advances. There were in other areas in which they did not. As far as I’m concerned, it is more important to try and figure out the causes of their success, and also the causes of their inability to achieve more in certain parts of the region as well as in certain arenas in those societies.
RS: Given that then, what areas or what countries are you most optimistic about that women will continue to make advances? Where do you think that? Is there a particular country where you think that women are actually falling back and receding in their advances? What two countries do you think offer the greatest contrast?
MH: I’m resisting any attempt at generalizing because it’s a large region and difficult. Even within countries there are contrasts between the ability of certain groups. For instance, in some areas, let’s say middle class women have been able to demonstrate the fact that they take important roles in the protest movements.
For instance, working class women were also demonstrated to play an important role, also in labor unions. Perhaps the arena where women were not as well represented tended to be the political arena. That was not really the case, for instance in Tunisia.
I’m suggesting that the Islamists and the Secularists have agreed on the need to represent women in a way that’s highlighted the importance of the role that they were to play in the new political system.
The representation of women actually continued to improve in Tunisia. You have the paradox in which both the Islamists and the Secularists agreed on the importance of giving women an important role to play in the drafting of the constitution and in being represented within that constituent assembly. Tunisian women wanted to push for even more rights still. That perhaps was not realized. You have this situation in which they’re well-represented, but the women’s expectations exceeded what was being delivered. I mentioned that in the case of Egypt, there was a backlash. In other words, in Egypt, the Muslim brotherhood was not as excited about improving the representation of women, even though the women who secured seats in parliament were nominated largely or belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and not to the liberal groups.
The liberal political parties did not really nominate women in positions that were high enough in the electoral lists for them to become Members of Parliament. You have also basically a demonstration of how the so-called secular or liberal groups may not necessarily support better representation for women. In other words, it turns out that it’s not only the Islamist groups that could be more conservative in their position on women’s better political representation, but this particular attitude could also be shared by liberal groups as well.
I think it is fair to say that women have realized, as a result of the last three years since the Arab Spring, that they really face a number of different issues that they need to continue to fight for. It’s not just about making sure that their rights are not infringed upon by conservative groups in societies, but that liberal groups also demonstrate more commitment to also improve the rights of women to better representation.