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The Not-So-Silent Gender

By Morgan M. Davis

Men dominate coverage of the Arab Spring. In photos and videos of the rebellion, men seem to always overshadow women, who can often be seen in the background. But women have been leaders too. Whether wearing a headscarf or standing with uncovered hair, they have been at the forefront of their communities, demanding democracy not just for their husbands and sons, but for their daughters and themselves.

In correlation with International Women’s Day on March 8, the New American Foundation hosted a breakfast conversation with five women leaders of the Arab Spring at the Core Club in Midtown Manhattan on March 5. The women, from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and Somalia, are members of Karama, an organization working to end gender violence in the Arab region.  During the hour-long conversation with a predominately female audience, the women discussed the current political situations in their countries, as well as the role women can and should play in these movements. “I don’t think you can believe everything you see in the newspapers all the time,” says Hibaaq Osman, a global political strategist from Somalia and member of the U.N. Women’s Global Civil Society Advisory Group.

Mouna Ghanem, deputy to the president of the Building the Syrian State opposition movement, is particularly upset with the media agenda in covering Syria. “Everyone is only focusing on getting rid of the president,” she says. Instead, the focus should be on the push for democracy, the real revolution happening throughout the region. The United States, she says, plays an important role in this democratic revolution as a historic example of the success and evolution of democracy.

The Arab region’s desire for democracy hasn’t been clean or smooth. “Each and every country in the Arab world must develop their own democracy,” says Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, Jordan’s minister of tourism. “You can’t import democracy from the outside … it’s totally different.” 

“Rome was not built in seven days. This is a revolution,” says Osman. But, “the wall of fear has been broken down. Women have a chance to fight back and they didn’t have that before.”

The struggle to redefine the Arab political sphere has made countries susceptible to Islamic extremist parties, something that threatens women’s liberation in this new society, says Ghanem. Some men feel passionately about democratic rights, but don’t want those rights extended to women, she says, relaying a conversation she had with another opposition leader.  “Woman is a sister, woman is a wife, woman is a lover, but he never mentioned that woman is a citizen,” she says. “For many people in the region, they don’t consider women a part of the society, they are there to support the society of men. So they really believe in democracy, but supported by women as a wife.” 

Ghazaleh agrees, saying that men are eager for the participation of women in protests and demonstrations, but are then quick to leave them out of participation in decision making. “We have to define the role of women in shaping the new world … the role of women in the constitution, the role of women in the political participation, the role of women in the economic sector,” she says.

The idea of the Arab woman needs to be revolutionized, says Zahra Langhi, a political activist from Libya. “We should start by dismantling the passive, submissive, victimized image of these women,” she says. “They’re already empowered, and they’re working on empowering society further.”

For the average women still facing conflict in their daily struggle for change, discrimination goes beyond being left out of decision making and voting. Violence, especially sexual violence, against women is an ever-present danger in the revolution. A recent report issued by the Bridge, a new peace building and democracy think tank based in Syria, and contributed to by Ghanem highlights the specific problems Syrian women face, both for remaining in the country and becoming refugees. While both genders are victims of sexual violence in the Syrian conflict, women are proportionally targeted more as victims of rape, assault, and trafficking. According to the report, government troops and opposition forces alike use rape as a means of revenge, humiliation, and terror in the population that has stayed in their homes. Many of the crimes involve multiple attackers. Chastity, says the report, is “synonymous to family honor and pride,” making sexual assault almost the equivalent of capital punishment. 

Sadly, women who flee Syria for refugee camps are just as susceptible to sexual violence and exploitation. Poor refugee girls as young as 14-years-old are being “sold” into sham marriages, the Bridge reports. Men pay what they call a dowry to marry a girl, only to end the marriage a matter of hours or days after the marriage is consummated. The refugee camps have become markets for disingenuous “suitors” to prey on desperate young women. Rehabilitation of these victims will continue longer than the conflict. If women wish to repatriate, society may shun them, even if violence subsides.

The role of women post-conflict is an incredibly important one, the panel agreed. This means women need full and equal access to polling places as well as seats in the government. In Egypt, there are fewer polling places for women than men, and they are open for fewer hours, effectively disenfranchising many female. Women of these Arab nations have led charges and resistance for freedom and democracy alongside their husbands and brothers. They have been empowered by the Arab Spring as much as their male counterparts have. And yet, they’ve often been victimized and devastated in ways that men have not. If the Arab world wants to embrace democracy fully, it cannot selectively choose whom democracy is for. Allowing women to participate as full citizens in the shaping of these new governments will continue the revolution for democracy. Change, of course, could take years. Western democracies, like the United States, excluded women and minorities for more than a century before realizing their own hypocrisy. The Arab nations have a chance to learn from those mistakes and create their own democratic society now.

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Morgan M. Davis is a World Policy Journal editorial assistant

[Photo courtesy of Omar Chatriwala.]

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