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Beginning in 2010, the Arab world has entered what is now known as Arab Spring—a series of social protests, often taking the form of non-violent demonstrations but also resulting in violent outbreaks. The wave started with social unrest in Tunisia in 2010 and soon spread across large part of the Arab World, including Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and to a lesser degree, Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. The main wave was over by 2012, but the social and political aftermath of the phenomenon can still be detected today. From a strictly political perspective, the Arab Spring resulted in major changes only in Tunisia, where a constitutional democratic government was established after the revolution. However, many scholars tend to prioritize social motives as that direct effects of the event.
While the initial cause, according to the consensus, was the disillusionment with the existing government, the movement soon became associated with social rights and equality, and their derivative effects, such as unemployment, an alarming poverty rate, and an environment unfavorable to educated youth. Understandably, Arab women soon became the center of attention in the media, both inside the Arab world, and on an international scale. Some analysts speculated that women have served as a major force in the revolution and will sooner or later face the most radical social and cultural changes following from the Arab Spring.
Nevertheless, the majority of these suggestions turned out to be over-optimistic, far-fetched, hasty, and for the most part, unfulfilled by 2016, as aside from small-scale improvements, the situation is only slightly improved. Furthermore, despite active participation directly in the demonstrations and the social activism movements that followed, there are feasible risks of regression, as some experts point out, resulting in adverse effects. Simply put, while the Arab Spring can still be perceived as potentially beneficial for women, it also poses a threat of setbacks, and its ultimate impact is yet to be determined.
The aim of the research is to define the effects that the Arab Spring has had on the perception of women in the Arab society. To be more accurate, the differences in the vision of women’s roles and responsibilities as citizens will be considered and assessed.
Women as peace-builders
From the perspective of the international legal provisions, when locating the demographics that are typically affected by military actions to the greatest extent, women are traditionally singled out as the most vulnerable members of the population. The reasons for the observed phenomenon are quite evident; since participation in military actions is typically viewed as men’s duty, women do not receive the necessary training to protect themselves. As a result, the female members of the population may fall prey to aggressive opponents and be subjected to many forms of violence, including the sexual one.
As a response to the consistent threat to the identified members of the community, the article 27 of the Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states, “women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault” (Fernandez and Ortega 2). Although providing some form of protection, the regulation can be defined as simplifying the danger to which women are subdued. Furthermore, it distorts the contemporary image of a woman, which is far from being passive and non-militant. Women can take an active part in protecting themselves and their community, as well as supporting the affected population by assisting in the areas such as healthcare, leadership, etc.
Thus, although admittedly destructive, military confrontations can be considered the tools for subverting the archaic societal norms and replacing them with more appropriate ones, and women playing the roles traditionally considered male is a graphic example of such change. In fact, the ideas represented above were suggested in the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2010. Based on the provisions of the resolution, a reconsideration of the current gender policy and the enhancement of women’s role in military conflict management are needed to enhance the efficacy of negotiations and the related processes. Thus, women can participate in decision-making processes on the state level, contributing to a change in the political landscape of the country.
The Effect of Arab Spring on Women Security
From the onset of the first demonstrations in Tunisia, followed by the rest of the countries of the Arab World, the phenomenon now known as Arab Spring became strongly associated with women. The extensive participation of the female population in the uprising was by some experts as a defining factor in the successful outcomes of revolution thoroughly covered by media and created the overall image of Arab Spring as a major opportunity for women to realize their potential. Their participation in protests on a par with men and, in some cases, prominent involvement in journalism and other forms of activism is cited in Tunisia and, to some degree, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen (Shalaby and Moghadam 37).
The most evident reason for such active involvement was their dissatisfaction with their social status in most of Arab countries. Naturally, the scale, scope, and magnitude of events suggested major changes in the lives of women following the revolution. One particular area that was expected to be subject to change was the security of women resulting from improved gender equality. In fact, the equal participation of men and women was so intense and presented such a contrast to the traditional image of oppressed victims with no rights, that it was perceived as a turning point at the beginning of a new era of gender equity. However, subsequent events show little improvement over the initial situation. In Tunisia, for instance, the newly installed government has tried to distance itself from the previous hegemonic masculinity, which included, among other things, oppression of women (Shalaby and Moghadam 117).
Studies show that the Arab Spring has had a significant impact on the culture of the states involved in the confrontation. For instance, literacy rates among women reached a stunning mark of 86% in 2012 (UNICEF “Statistics” para. 5). The academic participation of female members of the population has also risen in Egypt, secondary school attendance ratio reaching 69.5% (UNICEF “Statistics” para. 5).
While the intuitive assumption is that the new regime should embrace women’s empowerment, the actual result is paradoxically the direct opposite: The new government is making an effort to depict the women who actively participated in the uprising and were responsible for its success as associated with the old regime, e.g., the accusations of certain secular women’s movements being implicated in the discrepancies characteristic for previous governance, and other attempts to imply their participation in malevolent dealings of the old regime (Stepan and Linz 24). This naturally compromises women’s social security and undermines their political capability, not to mention a worsening public perception. Unfortunately, insecurities do not end there, as some sources also report a decline in physical security of women resulting from Arab Spring.
In Egypt, for instance, activist groups reported multiple sexual assaults during the protests on Tahrir Square in June 2013. This issue eventually became persistent enough to create a response in the form of anti-sexual harassment groups aimed at protecting women from violent sexual attacks. According to the analysts, such behavior was not entirely spontaneous, since it aligned with the policies of Muslim Brotherhood’s government, which is known for its reluctance to address the problem (Stepan and Linz 23). This assertion is partially confirmed by a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll. According to its results, Egypt currently has the worst life conditions for women, with violence and harassment among the chief factors responsible for the ranking (Mele and Vujnovic 331). This means that violence against women was not a spontaneous reaction but a sign of a systematic phenomenon partially grounded in existing prejudice, newly emerging policies, and social factors such as poverty and literacy.
Furthermore, the Arab Spring has had a direct effect on the literacy rates in the affected states, in general. With a much stronger emphasis on the significance of IT innovations and the opportunities for communication that they provide, the target environment incorporates more chances for learning and conversing than it used to. As a result, the process of knowledge and skills acquisition has been launched, and the literacy rates are currently growing in the identified environment (UNICEF “A Generation on the Move” 23). In other words, global organizations tend to view the Arab Spring as a factor affecting the education levels positively. However, the conflicts between the Arab Spring countries and the states in the Middle East, Gulf Countries, and the UAE, which the movement implies, make it quite clear that numerous political, economic, financial, and social challenges lie ahead.
Women That Became Famous During and After the Arab Spring
During the course of the Arab Spring movement, several women stood out as prominent examples and served as a model for others to join the revolt. Among the best-known of these is Asmaa Mahfouz, an Egyptian activist credited by the media as one of the facilitators of the Egyptian Revolution. While involved in the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, she is mostly remembered as an author of a 2011 video voicing disapproval of Mubarak’s regime, which allegedly was responsible for triggering the Revolution. While some believe that such scope diminishes her other achievements, it also illustrates the role of social media, which, according to some scholars, played a defining role in the Arab Spring (Leender 249).
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Israa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian activist credited by the media as one of the facilitators of the Egyptian Revolution, is a similar example of a woman strongly influencing the course of the uprising. She is well-known for her blogs and YouTube videos, in which she discloses some of the issues on the political and cultural agenda of Egypt. Her contribution to informing the world of the course of events, and leadership for women of Egypt eventually created a strong movement of activists (Leenders 251). Her case remains an illustration of both the role of women in the Arab Spring movement and insecurity created by the transformation associated with it.
Examples of positive effects on women can also be found. For instance, most of the countries under the influence of the Arab Spring report improvements in access to education for women. With the exception of Yemen, all of the countries display steady growth of women’s school enrollment, with at least three of them reporting a prevalence of women in higher education establishments (Mohamadieh 373). It should be noted, however, that the cultural heritage of the reported countries still poses a sufficient barrier to women on most occasions. Besides, women still experience difficulties in applying their obtained expertise to pursue a successful career, since their society discourages them from achieving success on a par with men. Another positive effect can be observed in access to health care. After the onset of the Arab Spring, both maternal mortality and infant mortality in most countries decreased significantly, and female life expectancy rose by 18 years on average (Mohamadieh 375). Thus, while some areas demonstrate improvement, the overall impact of the Arab Spring on women cannot be definitively deemed positive due to cultural and political barriers.
Islamic Extremism’s Influence on Women
The emergence of Islamic extremist groups has also played an adverse role in women’s rights after the revolution. While neither Quran nor Hadith feature specific instructions that explicitly define the role of women in society, extremist groups tend to emphasize and sometimes reinterpret the messages to specifically restrict women rights (Johansson-Nogués 399). As these groups often emphasize radical policies that suggest economic and political reforms, and distance themselves from the old government, they look especially attractive in the light of the Arab Spring, which was primarily driven by disillusionment with the old regime. As a result, they have gradually become more influential over the latter years. Unfortunately, patriarchy is among the cornerstones of their ideology, which inevitably widens the gap in gender equality.
The disillusionment with the Western social model and the tendency to turn to a more traditional society is also used by Islamic extremist groups to portray the rising role of women in society as an invention of colonial politics and a threat to Muslim society (Johansson-Nogués 397). The improvement in education and the presence of women in the social sphere following the social unrest in the Arab world also triggered a reaction: After the number of educated women increased enough to threaten male dominance, the supporters of extremist groups, often unable to compete with more educated and competent female specialists, immediately responded with additional restrictions and emphasized the need to restrict women to their inferior social positions. In Yemen, for instance, the Islah party openly declared a decision to allow women’s participation in voting, which was perceived as an improvement over the previously restrictive policy.
At the same time, no female candidate was put forward by the party, which rendered the decision useless and qualified it more as a publicity stunt than an actual reform. On certain occasions, the legal changes introduced after the revolution actually nullified the progress made in the field of women’s rights in recent decades. For instance, in Egypt, the provisions of the new constitution included a lower minimum age for girls to marry, and other changes were discussed that suggested increased limitations on divorce rights and freedom of movement (Stepan and Linz 19). In Tunisia, an unsuccessful attempt was made by the Islamic party to undermine gender equality by introducing a legal definition of gender complementarity, and in Libya, the 2011 changes in the constitution resulted in removal of the equality provision, followed by an announcement from the government with regard to removing restrictions concerning polygamy (Charrad and Zarrugh 234).
As a result, the Arab Spring created a somewhat paradoxical setting where the changing social climate favored both the improvement of women’s rights and action by the forces that are dissatisfied with such developments and have at their disposal the means to hamper any trend unfavorable for themselves.
The review of the consequences of the Arab Spring and its impact on women’s rights creates a rather bleak picture. Despite the seemingly obvious immediate improvement projected by the media and the general public, expectations were largely unfulfilled. However, this does not mean that results are nonexistent. The progress made in health care and education, not to mention the recognition on the global scale and the tremendous contribution to awareness cannot be ignored in assessing the outcomes. Thus, several conclusions and suggestions can be made to warrant further improvement of the role of women in the countries in question. First, the uneven results must be perceived as a sign of inaccurate predictions and an overoptimistic view, rather than a proof of improperly chosen methods. Second, the barriers hampering achievements must be acknowledged and possibly addressed.
For instance, the progress made in education is currently conflicting with values and cultural implications propagated by Islamic extremist groups, rendering the achievement unusable. Women have already demonstrated the ability to organize and undertake challenging tasks, despite major social and cultural resistance. It is a fact that the current climate is not favorable to goals pursued by women’s activist groups, but the first achievements are already observable, and while the situation still demands intervention, it can be argued that in ten to twenty years, the situation will be further improved. The unfulfilled expectations, in this case, are not so much a reason for despair as the proof of the complexity of a social environment that already demonstrates a capacity for embracing women’s rights, but still presents unforeseen challenges and requires cautious analysis to assist high aspirations for the future.
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