Between Trauma and Resistance: Feminist Engagement with the Arab Spring

These days, to ask what effect the Arab Spring had on women is to pose a question which seems ridiculous, irrelevant almost, given the bloody and brutal outcomes of revolutions in countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, and the ongoing repercussions of the uprising in Egypt, which leave no room for doubt that the dreams of the millions who demonstrated in Egypt's Tahrir Square in 2011 chanting ‘Bread, Liberty and Social Justice’ and calling for ‘Dignity and Freedom’ widespread in Syria, Libya and Yemen, have become terrifying nightmares which have touched on the lives of all members of society. But the progressive feminist movement across the Middle East is recovering from a particularly traumatic ride, and are finding they are being forced to fight again on issues which were on the table at the very birth of the movement and were felt by many to have been reconciled.

It should be recognised that the negative impact of the Arab Spring’s outcomes have not only affected women and their struggle for rights. The barrel bombs the Assad regime continues to drop on Aleppo do not distinguish between gender or age or political affiliation. Likewise, the economic collapse in Egypt does not target women alone; it hurts everybody. The munitions of the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen are equal opportunity. The massacres taking place in Syria, Libya and Yemen affect the lives of everyone living in the conflict zones, without discrimination on the basis of class, or gender, or age. With the exception of perhaps Tunisia, the only kind of equality to be found in the Arab world these days appears to be equality before the barrel of a gun. 

The Arab revolutions’ descent from a dream of freedom and justice to a nightmare of bloodshed and pitched battles goes hand-in-hand with the decline in the status of women, both in real and symbolic terms. This parallels the reactionary tendency seen in public political discourse on women’s issues and rights in recent years. The sheer brutality of violations carried out against women and their rights has come as a shock to feminists, whose feminist discourse had previously inhabited a bubble of post-colonialist and post-modernist theory and cultural relativism which has been unable to keep pace with the developments in the Middle East.

Arab Feminist Discourse: a Battle on all Fronts

On the eve of the Arab Spring, Arab feminist discourse had progressed significantly through its engagement with gender and post-colonial theories. It took on both orientalist and Islamist discourses and attempted to offer alternative readings of various societal dynamics, especially those related to women’s rights, while identifying centres of power and resistance within patriarchal systems in the Middle East. It was in this context that the writings of various feminists gained traction, including Fatima Mernissi[i] from Morocco, Leila Ahmed[ii] and Saba Mahmoud[iii] from Egypt, and the Tunisian author Raja Bensalama.

The work of these feminist researchers contributed to the deconstruction of systems of power affecting the status of women within Islam, both in practice and thought, and it did so by engaging with Western modernist thought on the one hand and with post-colonial and post-modern critical theory on the other. The discourse of these feminists was directed inwards, at their own societies, but it was also addressed to those centres of research in Western academia that produce culturalist and Orientalist theories, reinforced by Islamophobia or anti-hegemonic critiques.

The rise of terrorist movements such as al-Qaida, especially post-September 11 2001, played a huge part in intensifying theoretical polarisation around issues of Islam, modernism, cultural backwardness, progress and the rights of women and minority groups. At the same time the involvement of feminists in these debates was intensified. As a result Western epistemology enjoyed an unprecedented degree of hegemony, and Arab feminist discourse was thus largely reshaped along the lines of these priorities.

Amongst feminist activists operating in Arab societies, efforts intensified to institutionalise hitherto organic and unstructured ‘popular’ feminist movements. A majority of these made the transformation into non-governmental organisations linked to foreign or governmental funding, with their priorities governed directly or indirectly by the attitudes of their funders. A growing focus on the part of these organisations has been to change legislation and achieve influence via the political elites, while focusing on issues of sexual assault, gendered vocabulary, and awareness-raising of women’s rights and empowerment.

Yet this feminist activism - devoted to issues of empowerment, gender theory and equality, and populated by women who had fought for the implementation of international agreements on women’s rights - found itself confronted, without warning, with criminally barbaric violations of women’s rights committed by terrorist groups which sought to return women to the ‘dark ages’. Organisations such as al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafist movements enforced the wearing of the niqab, begun to ban women from leaving their homes, or, as in the case of Daesh, revived trade in female slaves.

The January revolution in Egypt, which initially provided a great boost to female political participation, soon degenerated with chilling effects on women. The deliberate use of systematic mass assaults against women for political ends, and a reactionary, fundamentalist gender discourse came to the fore. This gulf between the progress made in feminist discourse and the feminist movement’s achievements on the one hand, and on the other, the revival of medieval attitudes towards women’s rights, came as a great shock to feminists.

The consequences of this shift are still felt to this day. The Afghan-Taliban cliché of the wholly-covered woman hidden from the public gaze, which had once seemed peculiar, to put it mildly, as a model of political governance, has become paradigmatic image of political power across large areas at the heart of the Arab world. The gulf that lay between progressive Arab feminist discourse and the lived reality of the revolutions has forced feminists who had initially supported the revolutions to re-evaluate their position.

The impact these popular movements were having on the gains they had made and the consequences of political Islam on the status of women in the region is impossible to ignore.[iv] More damaging still, the feminist movement, feminists and female activists have found themselves having to debate and discuss the same issues which had confronted the pioneers of Arab feminism such as the hijab, child marriage and education.

From Revolutionaries to Objects of Shame

Statistics from Egypt show that women participated in large numbers in the demonstrations that filled Tahrir Square in 2011 up until the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Some claim that women made up between 40 - 50 per cent of demonstrators in the square, and were drawn from all social and ideological backgrounds.[v] This figure would constitute an unprecedented level of female participation in political demonstrations. Understood in its most inclusive sense, the revolutionary slogan ‘Bread, Liberty, and Social Justice’ serves as a call to improve the reality of women’s lives as equal and free citizens of the republic. Women such as Asmaa Mahfouz and Nawara Nigm came to the fore as leaders.

But all this optimism was dealt a slap in the face on the first post-revolution Women’s Day on March 8, when women marching for gender equality were subjected to physical harassment and verbal abuse. The very next day a sit-in protest in Tahrir Square was broken up by security forces, and eighteen young women were arrested and taken to military prison. At least seven of them were subjected to forced virginity tests, with the army offering the justification that they wished to guard against any potential future claims that they had raped their detainees.[vi]

The struggle was rapidly crystallising into a fight between two groups, neither of which cared in the slightest about women’s rights. On the one hand, the Islamists, who were the only organised opposition movement, and on the other was the military, who controlled the apparatus of state repression. Youth, women’s, and civil society forces were marginalised by this concentration of power within the Islamist movement, and following the 2012 elections which saw the Muslim Brotherhood installed in government, women occupied only two per cent of seats in the lower chamber.[vii] According to a report by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (entitled ‘2012: the Year of the Exodus of the Egyptian Woman’) Egypt saw the single greatest decline of any country in the international rankings for female political participation, dropping to 126th place overall.[viii]

Quite aside from this decline in women’s representation, Egypt has seen sexual harassment become a systematically deployed technique for deterring women from participating in demonstrations and strikes. During celebrations on the second anniversary of the revolution in Tahrir these tactics even included rape.[ix] According to the anti-harassment and sexual assault unit, the celebrations in Tahrir were marred by terrifying crimes against women. The unit received nineteen reports of mass sexual assaults that had taken place in and around the square, some of them involving attempted murder and resulting in permanent injuries.

Nobody can know for sure who was behind these assaults on women in public places, but there can be no doubt that they were organised with political objectives in mind; to first and foremost intimidate women, and secondly to promote a sense of insecurity and lawlessness. These incidents became a medium for both the military and the Islamists to send a political message. The military used them to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood were incapable of keeping order, while the Brotherhood asserted them as further evidence that the men and women should be kept segregated in public.

With Sisi’s coup and the end of Brotherhood rule, things still did not improve. The issue of women’s rights and their status in society was effectively restored to the position it occupied under Hosni Mubarak. This was another step in the wrong direction; gender equality became once more a topic which could be instrumentalised in accordance with political interests, and not a question of citizenship and human rights.

Despite these challenges, Egyptian women are without doubt more fortunate than their Syrian sisters. According to statistics published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights in a report released to coincide with the 2013 International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, 11,000 women have been killed since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. There have been 7,500 cases of sexual violence committed by the regime within detention centres and during raids, with 400 committed against individuals less than eighteen years old. There are some 2.1 million displaced women within Syria and 1.1 million Syrian women who are refugees outside its borders.[x] According to the UNHCR 145,000 Syrian women are responsible for providing for their families in refugee camps and centres in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, amid very challenging living conditions.[xi] Hopes were similarly dashed in Yemen, despite the high levels of women participating in demonstrations shortly before the ouster of President Saleh, the situation quickly deteriorated into civil war, destroying women’s hopes of change.

It is clear that whilst women were at the forefront of the revolutions calling for freedom, justice and dignity, they have become a footnote in what followed, as revolutions in Syria, Yemen and Libya turned into civil wars or counter-revolutions.[xii] Over this period, women have gone from being revolutionaries to objects of shame, while their bodies have become part of the battlefield itself, a means to control political action and one of the weapons deployed in the battle for power between fundamentalist Islamist groups and repressive regimes.

This appears to validate Fatima Mernissi's observation prior to the Egyptian revolution:

‘Any ruler facing a crisis, who has to deal with the discontent of a starving population or a popular uprising, will immediately implement two measures which are always at the forefront of any corrective strategy: the destruction of alcoholic beverages and preventing women from leaving the house or taking public transport used by men.’[xiii]

The problem encountered by women involved with the revolutions was that the systems of power in the Arab world were deeply rooted, immovable, distributed among institutions of male hegemony and culture, and based around a patriarchal nationalism. When these came under attack, the entire repressive apparatus and its age-old cultural legacy was deployed for the sole purpose of preserving the status quo. It seems that the feminist movement was genuinely unprepared for how durable this culture and cultural legacy would be. Its treatment of women as something to be manipulated and directed according to the whims and desires of male hegemony was not something which could be deconstructed quickly.

What Now for Arab Feminism? Challenges and Opportunities

According to Islamist writings, one of the more praiseworthy outcomes of the Arab revolutions was that they weakened the influence of the ‘Westernising’ feminist movement, a term used by fundamentalist Islamists to discredit the Arab feminist movement as simply an echo of Western discourse.

However, the feminist movement is often portrayed as the biggest loser of the Arab Spring. This belief is based first and foremost on the experiences of women at the forefront of revolutions across the Arab world, where Islamist movements have extended their influence to largely eclipse those of the popular uprisings, most notably in Libya and Syria. The civic and democratic values that dominated the early stages of uprisings have given way to traditional, Islamist and other counter-revolutionary forces, as seen in Yemen and Egypt.

The persistent criticisms by Islamists of secularist Islamic movements, which have been dismissed as Western and populated by lackeys of the West have been paired with efforts to equate the feminist movement with corrupt regimes. This is premised on the idea of a top-down, Western model embodied in the concept of ‘the First Lady’ as patron of ‘Westernising’ feminism.[xiv]

This anti-feminist position was not however openly stated at the outset of the revolution. Salafist movements were happy to use women as a pretext for mobilisation and they supported a number of problematic actions, with female supporters of their cause taking part in demonstrations calling for regime change in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. Once the regimes had fallen though, it became clear that this participation was merely the exploitation of women to propagate Salafist and Islamist thought. The emergence and institutionalisation of the ‘proselytising woman’ stood in opposition to secular feminists.[xv]

In her study ‘Circles of Fear: Tunisian women and Salafism’ Dr. Amal Qarami from the University of Manouba in Tunisia examined Salafist propagation of a misogynist culture. She characterises the Salafist program as an extremist discourse which seeks to return women to the domestic sphere and turn literalist readings of the Qur’anic text into laws. This position, she argues, is utterly untethered from real life and any understanding of what is referred to as ‘the intentions of religious law’. What was new were the violent methods employed by young Salafists to impose their worldview.

The most pressing danger currently facing feminist and progressive movements is arguably that the discourse of fundamentalist intimidation directed at women and their rights has been transformed from a problematic intellectual position into a series of actions designed to effect this vision on the ground. This has created a state of trauma in the ranks of movements for social justice. In areas under the control of Daesh women can only appear in public entirely covered in black and cannot mix with the opposite sex. The revival of practices such as taking captured women as slaves, trading in female slaves, and the use of rape as a punishment in times of war is horrifying. This is fundamentalist attitudes towards women taken to their most extreme conclusion.

Whilst openly terrorist Islamist groups like Daesh strike fear in the hearts of Western onlookers, mainstream 'moderate' Islamist movements such as the Tunisian Nahda movement[xvi] and the Muslim Brotherhood propagate a discourse of ‘soft repression’ towards women. The contradictions between word and deed by these groups are evident. In her article ‘Women in the Discourse of the Nahda Movement’, Tunisian researcher Raja Bensalama points to the contradictory approach inherent in Nahda’s literature towards women’s political and social rights. She focuses specifically on the views of Rashed Al Ghanousi and other luminaries of the movement, concluding that there has been no real change in the Nahda movement's thinking on gender equality – only opportunism.[xvii]

It is important here to highlight a point of crucial significance in the Tunisian experience, which actually resulted in the Nahda movement being forced to revise its politics somewhat. The presence of a courageous liberationist feminist discourse and the strength feminist groups in the country which allies with marginal social movements like those representing the workers, and the existence of space for liberal culture and human rights, created an excellent opportunity to leverage genuine political influence. This forced the Nahda Movement to revise its approach to women.

The outcome of the Arab revolutions, which saw the collapse of the Arab Spring and in some countries a descent into medieval barbarism towards women, dealt a blow to the feminist movement. Feminists who had made great strides at the theoretical and intellectual level, and activists who thought they had moved past basic practical issues such as the right to employment and education, found themselves again fighting the battles that had confronted the feminist movement in its infancy. The issue of the hijab – a battle that Egyptian feminist Hoda al-Shaarawi had fought over a century before – again had to be debated. Questions such as women’s right to political representation, first raised by the pioneers of the Arab Renaissance such as Sheikh Tantawi and first Egyptian male feminist Qassem Amin, were also raised as though they were not settled matters.

However, it might be proposed that this return to basic principles, although frustrating, can be seen as a watershed moment. All progressive movements concerned with citizenship, and not just those focused on women’s rights, equality and liberation from their status as objects have been forced to contemplate the relationship between social justice and national security. The institutionalisation of a comprehensively equal and progressive concept of citizenship and the total removal of religion from the public sphere is a debate which is now on the table. This has become possible because ‘the issue of women’ has become a tool for generating polarisation by backward forces to undermine security and stability in societies touched by the Arab Spring.

Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger


[i] Fatima Mernissi, Women and Islam: An historical and theological enquiry; translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994, see also Fatima Mernissi, The veil and the male elite: a feminist interpretation of women’s rights in Islam; translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., 1991.

[ii] Leila Ahmad, Women and Gender in Islam, Yale University Press, 1992.

[iii] Saba Mahmoud, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton University Press; 2005.

[iv] See Rita Farag (Ed.), Women in the Arab World and the Challenges of Political Islam (Arabic), The Mesbar Studies and Research Center, Dubai, 2013.

[v] Niklas Albin Svensson, ‘The Key Role of Women in the Egyptian Revolution’, in Defence of Marxism. Retrieved 25 June 2015:

[vi] Zainab Al Baqari, ‘Egypt: Women and Revolution in Egypt: From empowerment to Marginalization in Three Years’ (Arabic), in Fikr Online, May 8, 2015:

[vii] ‘Stages of the Development of Female Representation in the Egyptian Parliament’ (Arabic) in Agora, October 8, 2015 (Last viewed November 6, 2016):

[viii] The Women’s News Agency, Women in the countries of the Arab revolutions, Political Reform and Democratic Transformation Outside the Framework of Regional Strategy for Protecting Arab Women: Security and Peace (Arabic), May 21, 2013 (Last viewed November  2, 2016):

[ix] The Egyptian Center for Human Rights, Egyptian Women and the Muslim Brotherhood: Excessive Use of Force and Mass Violations (Arabic), September 1, 2013 (Last viewed November 6, 2016):

[x] The Syrian Network for Human Rights, On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women: What is Current State of Violence against Syrian Women? (Arabic), November 25, 2013 (Last viewed November 10, 2016):

[xi] UNHCR, Syrian Women Fight for Survival as They Head Families Alone, July 8, 2014:

[xii] not to mention Iraq, which has been hell itself for over a decade.

[xiii] Fatima Mernissi, The Fear of Modernity: Islam and Democracy (Arabic), Dar Al Jundy, Damascus, 2014.

[xiv] See for example the work of Al Haitham Zaafan, an Egyptian Islamist Salafist thinker who writes on feminism and Westernization: ‘The Feminist Movement and the Weakening of Islamic Societies: A Case Study of Egyptian Society’ (Arabic), in Al Bayan Magazine, 2006; ‘Western Funding and Buying Thought in the Arab World’ (Arabic), Al Bayan Magazine, 2011. For more on the weakening effect of the Arab revolutions on the feminist movement see: ‘Syrian Women and the Failure of the Feminist Movement’ (Arabic) at Al Moslim, February 2, 2016 (Last viewed November 9, 2016):

[xv] See, ‘Women of the Islamist Movement and their Entry into Politics: A Case Study of Salafist and Brotherhood Women’ (Arabic) at Islamist Movements, June 13, 2016 (Last viewed November 9, 2016):

[xvi] The Nahda Movement is a moderate Islamic political party in Tunisia. In the wake of the 2011 Tunisian revolution and collapse of the government of Ben Ali, the Ennahdha Movement Party was formed. In the 2011 Tunisian Constituent Assembly election, it won a plurality of 37% of the popular vote and formed a government.

[xvii] Raja Bensalama, ‘Women in the Discourse of the Nahda Movement’ (Arabic), in Rita Farag (Ed.), Women in the Arab World and the Challenges of Political Islam, The Mesbar Studies and Research Center, Dubai, 2013.