Women Making Democracy in the Arab World and Elsewhere

Leila Ahmed, photo by Jessica Scranton
Deborah Blagg

A dramatic reading of Ibrahim El-Husseini’s play Commedia Al-Ahzaan (A Comedy of Sorrows) opened Radcliffe’s 2012 gender conference, “Women Making Democracy,” highlighting the widening gap between the hopes of protesters who put their lives on the line during the heady days of  “Arab Spring” and the realities of establishing a democracy that incorporates their inspirational ideals.

Written in the midst of the revolution and first performed in Egypt in July 2011, the play follows a young, university-educated woman through chance meetings with diverse members of Egyptian society, including a soldier who encountered his own son in a military torture room and a young man so degraded by his economic and social circumstances that he walks on all fours like a dog. Egypt is often represented as a woman in Egyptian art, and in the play, the young woman’s growing awareness of the misery around her symbolizes the country’s coming to terms with the deeply engrained effects of years of oppression.

The lack of a sense of resolution in the play underscores the reality that “the revolution is incomplete,” as the playwright noted in a post-performance discussion. “When the revolution took place in Egypt, we felt the whole world was ours,” El-Husseini elaborated through an interpreter. “But the military council is still in control, and power is being taken by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.” Although he is encouraged that “the wall of fear has come tumbling down,” allowing artists and others to speak out, El-Husseini believes “it will be years until we can achieve true democracy.”

Women Making Democracy

Noting the play’s prominent place in the late-March conference, Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen said, “Artistic expression does critical work in a political struggle like ‘Arab Spring.’” In welcoming a capacity crowd to the Radcliffe Gym and a global audience via online streaming, Cohen highlighted the broad significance of  “Arab Spring,” saying, “The way in which these events have unfolded has great significance for women, with ramifications for decades to come.” Jennifer Hochschild RI ’01, chair of the conference planning committee and Harvard’s Henry LaBarre  Jayne Professor of Government, said the gathering was intended to explore “Arab Spring” protests as both “a unique phenomenon” and “a variant of a much broader category” of spontaneous uprisings led by people committed to democratic change. Panelists included activists, observers, and scholars whose discussions turned frequently to recent headline events: the military’s tightened grip on power in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster; the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want Islamic beliefs to prevail in governance; the erosion of quotas that guaranteed women’s representation in parliament; the recent public “virginity inspections” and brutal beatings of women activists; and threats to revoke existing statutes that protect women’s basic rights. With those issues as a backdrop, the speakers pushed beyond women’s roles in the protests to explore the complicated, worldwide struggle to build governments that reflect women’s ideals and hopes for the future.

Advances and Setbacks

Several of the speakers at "Women Making Democracy" pointed out that elections have not necessarily ushered in a new era of democratic rule--or an advancement of women's rights, despite women's significant participation in several countries.Several of the speakers at "Women Making Democracy" pointed out that elections have not necessarily ushered in a new era of democratic rule--or an advancement of women's rights, despite women's significant participation in several countries.In her keynote address, the Egyptian freelance journalist Shahira Amin offered a nuanced assessment of developments in post–“Arab Spring” Egypt. A veteran television reporter, Amin resigned her position as deputy head of the state-run Nile TV in January 2011 to protest the government’s official coverage of the Tahrir Square uprising. She was a leading force in focusing international attention on the virginity checks women protesters were subjected to by the police after their arrest during a March 2011 protest aimed at gaining a say in the new Egyptian constitution.

Although sexual harassment of women in Egypt was not uncommon in the past, Amin said, the fact that Samira Ibrahim, one of the women subjected to a virginity test, filed a lawsuit against the police “would have been unthinkable in the old Egypt.” Ibrahim lost the suit, but Amin called the massive protests following that decision and a subsequent court-issued order banning virginity tests signs “that the old impunity has gone.”

Less encouraging, said Amin, has been a disconnect between women’s significant participation in “Egypt’s first free, almost-fair election” and the advancement of women’s rights. Quotas for women serving in parliament have been abandoned, she noted, and women are bearing the brunt of “growing public anger against unrealized expectations” in the wake of the revolution. She said there has been a backlash against the so-called Suzanne’s Laws—property, divorce, and custody rights women gained with the backing of Egypt’s former first lady Suzanne Mubarak. Measures that discouraged the widespread traditional practice of female genital mutilation are among the gains that may be eroded with the resurgence of political Islam.

Other Democracies, Other Eras

Speakers from around the globe explored the worldwide struggle to build governments that reflect women's ideals and hopes for the future.Speakers from around the globe explored the worldwide struggle to build governments that reflect women's ideals and hopes for the future.Many of the Egyptian issues Amin raised resurfaced throughout the conference in discussions of women’s involvement in movements for democracy in other countries and in past eras. In a panel titled “Women, Rights, and Power,” Dalia Mogahed, executive director and senior analyst at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, shared the results of surveys that compare the attitudes of men and women in Egypt and Tunisia, the country with the most liberal gender legislation in the Arab world.

Presenting findings that may give Western feminists pause, Mogahed noted that “there was no gender consensus on the role of Shariah law in legislation” in either country. Rather, Tunisians of both sexes are less likely to favor Shariah-influenced lawmaking than their counterparts in Islamist-leaning Egypt. Neither country embraces a Western-style separation of church and state: just 10 percent of Tunisians in the Gallup survey favored a purely secular government, and only one percent of Egyptians did.

Mogahed said the polls suggest that even those who champion expanded roles for women in those two countries—and, encouragingly, there are many—“have negotiated within themselves a compromise where women’s rights coexist with Shariah laws.”

That brand of hopeful idealism does not exist for women living in post-revolution Iraq, according to Nadje al-Ali, a faculty member at the University of London. Describing women’s rights in Iraq as “yesterday’s story,” al-Ali said that women fought hard to gain a guarantee of 25 percent representation in parliament because “we knew we wouldn’t have our rights handed to us.” Yet in the social, political, and economic chaos that has followed the US invasion, having an official voice in government has not markedly improved women’s daily lives.

In widespread sectarian strife since 2005, “there has been a lot of violence against women during house checks, encounters at checkpoints, and in random shootings,” al-Ali said. “Militia linked to government parties and militia linked to insurgent groups use the same patterns and ways to terrorize women in the streets,” often targeting professional women and activists who are not wearing traditional Islamic clothing.

“One lesson Iraq has taught me,” al-Ali stressed, “is that elections are not to be equated with democracy. When people don’t have access to political programs,” she elaborated, “they end up voting on primordial beliefs, and the result is institutionalized sectarianism. We need to be careful in just focusing on elections and voting when we are speaking about democracy.”

Amplifying al-Ali’s caution, two participants offered perspectives on the role of women in the aftermath of revolutions outside the Middle East. Shireen Hassim, a professor of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said she sees parallels between the demands for representation that women are making in Arab countries and the rights fought for and gained by South African women in the early 1990s. But Hassim said those rights turned out to be “paper gains” in South Africa and “have not translated into significant advances in terms of advances for women on the ground.”

One problem, Hassim noted, is that representation for women “became a depoliticized demand, without content.” She described “a recent tendency for politics in the party sphere to become elitist,” stating that “women who have dominated in those spheres have become hostages to the agendas of the political parties,” and offering as examples a female foreign minister who kept silent about abuses against women in Zimbabwe, a woman health minister who lashed out against people with AIDS/HIV, and a woman minister of agriculture and development who failed to take measures to improve women’s rights to land.

Turning the focus to women’s experience after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, Ann Snitow, a scholar and activist who directs the Gender Studies Program at the New School for Liberal Arts, ventured, “Patriarchy was the heart and soul of anticommunism. I suspect a similar dynamic haunts the “Arab Spring,” where traditional patriarchy is seen as a bulwark against Western influence.”

Along with others at the conference, Snitow underscored the difficulty of making women’s rights a foundation of any new order. At the height of revolutionary activities in Gdansk, “to say change was gendered would have been to break solidarity,” she said. “You seemed ridiculous if you brought up gender, and being ridiculous was harder to fight than being hit over the head.”

Powerful Images

Snitow said she believed that violence against women during the “Arab Spring” could play a particularly strong role in intensifying feminism in the Middle East. Harvard Kennedy School professor Jane Mansbridge AM ’66, PhD ’71, RI ’05, who moderated the panel “Women, Rights, and Power,” said that “far more than in the American, French, and Russian revolutions, the current uprisings in the Middle East have brought women into the public eye.”

Referring to the images flooding cyberspace and other media of “the Blue Bra girl”—the Tahrir Square protester who was stripped to her bra and brutally beaten by militia members in December 2011—Mansbridge observed that in the flood of public outrage that followed, “gender actually became the center of one significant part of the waves of protest.”

The immediacy of communication in the digital age motivates “individual decisions to go out and protest, face tear gas or bullets,” said Philip N. Howard, a University of Washington expert on communication, information, and international studies. “Dictators have no counterinsurgency strategy for images of friends and family who have been harassed by regime security forces.”

While optimism was not a predominant theme at the conference, participants had a chance to consider many vivid symbols of the advances women activists have made across a landscape of daunting political, economic, and cultural barriers. Examples include the young, highly educated woman who served as a metaphor for modern Egypt in A Comedy of Sorrows; film footage of Khaoula Rashidi, the Tunisian coed who bravely confronted an Islamist activist who had replaced a Tunisian flag with a jihadists’ flag at Manouba University; and the image of a hijab-clad woman with hands raised in victory that was featured on the conference’s promotional poster.

Cohen closed the proceedings with an inspirational footnote about the woman featured on the conference poster, former Afghan national assembly member Malalai Joya. Banished from the government after she spoke out against the rule of “criminals and warlords,” Joya has continued to work for change in Afghanistan, surviving four assassination attempts to date. “When asked how she continues,” Cohen related, “Joya responded, ‘You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring.’”


Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.

Photographs by Jessica Scranton

Conference Exhibitions

During the conference, two exhibitions were on display in Radcliffe Yard: one in Byerly Hall, about the contemporary democracy movement in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and the other in the Schlesinger Library, about women activists of the past who worked for democratic change in the United States.

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony RinaldoRoaming Revolution: Unfolding the Narratives of a Square

In January 2011, the edges of a downtown Cairo rotary—previously noted for its overwhelming vehicular traffic and unfriendliness to pedestrians—changed overnight. This exhibition included a model of Tahrir Square and depicted its transformation into a space for political and artistic expression. Two students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design—Samaa Elimam and Sara Tavakoli—designed the exhibit.

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony RinaldoTenacious Women: Activists in a Democratic Society

This exhibition features four women—Flo Kennedy, Florence Luscomb, Maud Wood Park, and Jeannette Rankin—who spent their lives working for democratic change and expanding the rights of women and African Americans. It is on view in the Schlesinger Library through September 7, 2012.

Search Year: 
2012