On Sunday 17th December, it will have been seven years to the day since Mohamed Bouazizi, left desperate after the confiscation of the fruit cart from which he made a living, set himself on fire in front of the governor’s mansion in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia
The anger unleashed by his death, at a corrupt and democratically unaccountable government that many believe confiscated Bouazizi’s cart not because of any wrongdoing on his part, but because he refused to pay local officials a bribe, proved to be the spark that lit the fire of revolution. From Tunisia across the Middle East, one of the world’s youngest populations, sick and tired of feeling like their voices were never heard by those in power, took to the streets to demand change. The wave of resulting protest, crackdowns and revolutions became known to the world as the Arab Spring.
Bouazizi’s family have often speculated that one reason he reacted so drastically to his cart’s confiscation was because, in a highly conservative culture, the municipal official that took it from him was a woman. This incident highlights a curious aspect of the Arab Spring; that in a highly conservative region of the planet, women took a leading role in the protests. Upon closer examination, this makes a lot of sense. They make up a majority of the region’s population, and were suppressed not only by a lack of democratic accountability, but by strict social hierarchies and customs; they had as much motive as anyone to change the system.
Women played a variety of roles in the Arab Spring. In many cases they were the instigators of protests: Tawakkol Karman, who will be speaking at WES 2018, led the initial student protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh that culminated in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution, earning her the sobriquet “Mother of the Revolution” from Yemenis. They then wholeheartedly took part in the protests, with thousands of women taking to the streets across the Middle East, often in gender unsegregated protests in defiance of social norms.
Possibly some of the most important roles women took on were as journalists and bloggers, helping to spread the message of the protests, to report on the police brutality that was so often the response, to the outside world. This was largely enabled by the rise of the internet, which in itself was a key component of the Arab Spring. What allowed street protests in Tunisia to grow into a pro-democracy movement spanning two continents was the rapid transfer of news, information and ideas facilitated by the internet, in particular social media platforms like Twitter, in which women played a key role.
While societal norms and pressures had kept traditional media sources in Arab nations almost entirely male, there was nothing to prevent women from reaching out to the world through new media.
This started right from the beginning: Sidi Bouzid is in a relatively rural part of Tunisia, and word of the protests there might not have reached the outside world had it not been for the work of Lina Ben Mhenni, a blogger whose reporting on the protests, and in particular the crackdown on them by Tunisian security forces, helped fan the flames of anger across the region. This was a hallmark of amateur female journalists and bloggers, who made an effort to spread word of the protests internationally, whereas men focused more on domestic issues. Particularly prominent in this regard were what Western media called the “Twitterati”, a group of four women including Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy and Libyan activist Danya Bashir, whose twitter accounts received a lot of coverage on Western news channels, helping tell the story of the protests to the outside world.
Of course, women faced a lot of danger for taking such a bold stance during the protests. They were subject to the same violence as men, such as mass arrest, teargassing, and even being shot, as well as the threat of rape being ever constant, with mass rapes being reported in Libya following government crackdowns on protests. Press freedom in the Middle East has always been a thorny subject, with autocratic regimes keen to crack down on any possible sources of opposition and criticism. Women have also had a hand in this fight, with Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) being founded in 2005 to oppose President Salah’s crackdown on press freedom, as well as document the harassment, violence and kidnapping all too often directed against journalists in the region.
Though many at the time said that they were not protesting gender inequality, it seems likely that many female participants in the Arab Spring were hopeful of greater female empowerment post revolution, and may therefore have mixed feelings about the results of their efforts. In some states, such as Tunisia, women have seen an increase in their political representation. However, both societal norms and legal deficiencies regarding women’s rights have remained in place, with some seeing men as having taken the support of women for granted during the protests, and then forgotten about it afterwards. Countries like Egypt have also seen the rise of Islamist political parties in the wake of their revolutions, which some worry have a deeply regressive agenda regarding women. Whichever way you cut it, there is still a lot of work to be done!
N.B. This article reflects the author’s opinions only.
“Its interesting to see how the Internet contributed to the rise of women’s involvement in the revolution. Would the outcome of the revolution have been different if the Internet was not widely used?” – Tavleen, Biochemistry, 1st year
“Sometimes we underestimate the importance of words and symbols. Journalists are therefore necessary for democracy because they remind us that knowledge is power.” Mark, PAIS, 1st year