Category Archives: Arab Spring

Interview: Women’s Rights after the Arab Spring

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.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


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.

What is needed to develop entrepreneurship in Tunisia?

By Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

Participants join a town hall discussion on entrepreneurship from Zeghouan, Tunisia.

America Abroad Media’s Tunisian office — Association Tunisie Media (ATM) partnered with Radio Mosaique FM to host a town hall discussion exploring ways to foster entrepreneurship among young Tunisians.

The event connected audiences in the coastal city of Sfax — a growing hub for entrepreneurship — and the industrial city of Zeghouan, to discuss the challenges and opportunities for young entrepreneurs in Tunisia today.

Young men and women entrepreneurs who participated in the town hall talked about the challenges they have faced starting a business in Tunisia, from raising capital to dealing with bureaucracy to the lack of professional skills and adequate training.

Faycel Zahar, who works with small businesses as a director at the National Agency for Employment and Independent Work – a department of Tunisia’s Ministry of Employment – talks about the qualities needed to be a successful as entrepreneur in the audio clip below.

(Arabic with English translation).

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Raja Tibini, the owner of a kindergaten in Zeghouan, shares her experience of starting her own business in Tunisia.

Listen in the audio clip below.

(Arabic with English translation).

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Khlifa Sboui, director of small loans at the Tunisian Bank of Solidarity, argued that the Tunisian government is constantly working to create and develop new programs to help aspiring entrepreneurs start their own businesses.

Town hall on Tunisian identity 2 years after the revolution

By Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

Town hall participants in the rural city of Beja, Tunisia.

America Abroad Media’s Tunisian office — Association Tunisie Media (ATM) — recently partnered with Radio Mosaique FM to host a town hall discussion exploring Tunisian identity in a post-revolution society. The event took place one day after the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The event connected audiences in the coastal city of Bizerte and the rural city of Beja to discuss the possible tension between a modern, secular Tunisian identity and the traditional Arab-Muslim identity that has made a strong resurgence since the revolution. Despite different responses to this question expressed during the town hall, participants and panelists seemed to generally agree that modernity and the Arab-Muslim identity did not conflict with one another. However, people disagreed on what aspects of modernity should be adopted, while still preserving elements of the traditional Tunisian identity.

Town hall participants join the discussion from Bizerte, Tunisia.

Some participants said that a total departure from old traditions is preferable in order for society to advance and catch up with the developed world.

Listen to what participant Hsan El Ghazi, a high school teacher from Beja had to say:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Participant Farouk – a student from Bizerte – said that while the Muslim world was once a hub for modernization, the mentality within Muslim societies has changed.


Listen to his response below:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

More conservative Islamist participants said that modernity should not be adopted in its entirety, but adapted to suit the nature of the local culture.

Listen to what town hall participant, Mohamed El Qaydi, an Ennahda activist, had to say:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Both panelists explained that modernity and the Arab-Muslim identity are each comprised of many components. The Arab-Muslim identity is only one of many identities in Tunisia, and modernity has many faces.

Amel Qrami, a professor of Islamic studies, pointed out that the “modernization” that Tunisia went through did not create “modernity” in its full sense.

Disappointment for Copts in new Egyptian government

Photo courtesy of Copts United.

The acting head of the Coptic Church in Egypt is disappointed that the government of newly-elected Islamist President Mohammad Morsi is failing to include adequate representation to the Coptic religious minority. Morsi appointed one cabinet seat to the Copts among the 35 ministerial positions. Archbishop Pachomius says the new government unfairly represents Christians and ignores their rights as citizens.

Coptic Christians make up almost 10% of Egypt’s 82 million people. From VOA:

Coptic Christians in Egypt constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as the largest religious minority in the region. In 2011, approximately 94 people – mostly Coptic Christians –died as the result of sectarian violence in Egypt, 70 since the fall of Mubarak.

Should religious minorities be concerned about the rise of Islamist governments?

America Abroad’s Katherine Lanpher discusses the issue with professors Aomar Boum, an assistant professor at the School of Middle Eastern and North African studies at the University of Arizona and Saba Mahmood, an associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Katherine Lanpher: Let’s start by looking at the current political situation in the Middle East, what the casual observer knows as “Arab Spring” or the series of uprisings that we’ve seen across the region. What has that meant for religious minorities?

Saba Mahmood: I think it differs from country to country. Let’s take the example of Christians in Egypt. The Coptic Christians are the dominant Christian population. They’ve refused European protection historically and said: “We are Muslim by country and only Christian by religion.” They have suffered a series of discriminations which only escalated under the Mubarak regime. Now you have the Muslim Brotherhood that won the presidential election and it’s often touted in the press as being very negative. My studies in the last 20 years shows that the question is really open. We do not know how Coptic Christians will be treated. The Mubarak regime itself was very discriminatory against Copts when sectarian violence began to erupt against them.

Aomar Boum: If you look at Morocco and Tunisia, for instance, the Tunisian case is still uncertain despite the fact that the government has promised to protect the rights of Jews, given the fact that there is the rise of Salafis in Tunisia. If you look at the main religious minority in North Africa, they still are Jews. There are less than a thousand Jews who live in Tunisia. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews live in Morocco. Their situation is much better than other minorities in other parts of the Middle East. Algeria is a different case because we really don’t know the exact number of religious minorities. They are not as visible as much as in Morocco and Tunisia.

Read more from this interview »

Sandmonkey’s thoughts on upcoming Egyptian elections

Liberal youth formed the crux of the revolutionaries that took to the streets of Cairo to oust President Hosni Mubarak. Once toppled, Islamist parties in Egypt seemed to take over the political process. Islamist parties form the majority of members in parliament with a large say on the forming of a new constitution. Where did the liberals go? Why were they defeated so soundly in elections and have the Islamists hijacked the revolution?

Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem, better known by his nom de plume “Sandmonkey” spoke at the Washington Institute and shared his perspectives on the upcoming Egyptian elections and why there don’t seem to be any viable liberal candidates in the running. He is a longtime analyst of Egyptian political affairs and advocate for free speech. He also ran as a parliamentary candidate last year on the ticket of the Free Egyptians party.

He believes that the street movements were largely disorganized. Leftists have no candidates because they have not created a message that connects with the public at large. These civil and secular groups need to do a better job “modernizing their rhetoric” to appeal to large groups that are fundamentally Islamist and have lived the better part of their lives under a one-party system. The economy, corruption and security are the real issues that have to be dealt with forthright with new ideas and platforms that can appeal to the masses.

Read more »

Delegates from Muslim Brotherhood in Washington DC

One year later in Tahrir square, Zeinab Mohamed (via Flickr)

Delegates from the Freedom and Justice Party, a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, arrived in Washington DC this week to meet with White House officials, members of Congress, media and the general public to discuss their plans for what they wish to accomplish in the Middle East. At Georgetown University, they discussed issues such as women’s rights, religious minorities and the role of Islam in government. From NPR:

“It’s not necessarily just a PR campaign, but mainly we would like to get to know one another more,” said Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a lawmaker who is part of the delegation. He said it’s “very important to understand the American concerns and they understand our aspirations as Egyptians, after the Egyptian revolution.”

The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a powerful force in Egypt’s political landscape. They control more than two-thirds of parliamentary seats. They recently announced that they would present a candidate in the presidential elections of Egypt, breaking away from a pledge not to do so. Officials in Washington are concerned that Islamic governments, such as the ones that emerged in Egypt and Tunisia and Morocco may have an agenda very different from relationships previously established.

America Abroad’s Katherine Lanpher speaks with Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, and Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, about whether and how the US should engage with Islamists. Read more »

Bahrain uprisings one year later

March 10, 2011. A powerful message of protest in Pearl Square in Manama. Photo: Susan Schulman

On the 1-year anniversary of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain, protesters and activists took to the streets to demand an end to the monarchy and the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. Police fired back tear gas to disperse the crowds. The Pearl Square roundabout that was the center of the protest movement was blocked off and people turned away.

Since the violence began a year ago, over 60 civilians have died with 120 injured this week alone. Bahrain has been in turmoil with clashes between the Sunni-ruled monarchy and the Shi’a protesters. Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population of some 525,000 people, but say they have faced decades of discrimination and are blocked from top political and security posts. Each accuse the other of rejecting dialogue.

From Reuters:

Jasim Husain, a former lawmaker from the Shi’ite Wefaq party, the largest opposition faction, said Wefaq members had met Royal Court Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed, seen as a powerful figure in the ruling Al-Khalifa family.

“There is fresh attention now, but the authorities have to show seriousness,” he said, without giving details. “The new thing is that the government is increasingly becoming a partner and realizing that the security cannot solve the issue.”

From BBC:

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel on Monday, King Hamad dismissed the opposition’s complaints.

“We have made political reforms. We have just passed a number of amendments to the constitution which allow parliament to dismiss the government,” he said. “We invited everyone with openness. But some people boycotted the election and certain people just walked out of parliament. If you want a better system you have to join.”

Bahrain is a strategic ally for the U.S. The Fifth Fleet is stationed there and is responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf in this heavily trafficked area where much of the world’s oil is transported. Bahrain is also allied with the Saudis and serves as crucial partner to U.S. interests in the region.

America Abroad talked with Kristin Smith Diwan, assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, and an expert on the Gulf on Iranian influence in Bahrain and U.S.-Saudi interests. Read more »