Rethinking the status of women

Lessons from Palestine territories, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya
Friday 22/01/2016

London - The “Arab spring”, which began in Tunisia five years ago with a snow­ball effect across the re­gion, provided a chance for women to enhance their status socially and politically through at­tempting to change the male view of them as being “just a body”.

Widespread abuse was a main incentive for women to ride the tide of the “Arab spring” to push for more rights, break social norms and regain control of their bodies.

Rethinking Gender in Revolu­tions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World, edited by Maha El Said, Lena Meari and Nicola Pratt and published in May 2015, is a compilation of articles by scholars and activists from the countries af­fected, including the Palestine ter­ritories, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

In Egypt, women used Tahrir Square for public appearances though they were not welcomed as protesters. When men and women activists were arrested, the torture of men was interpreted as political but the abuse of women was seen as cultural and assertions of male superiority.

“The more the female body was abused, the stronger and more sol­id the activism that was practised,” writes Egyptian Professor Shereen Abouelnaga, noting that women used their mistreatment as incen­tive to push for gender equity and democracy, hoping it could lead to protections for women.

Sexual terrorism is also a central part of the experience of female Palestinian political prisoners.

The practice of sumud — keeping steadfast and silent when inter­rogated — was used by prisoners subjected to sexual harassment. They became unaffected by physi­cal abuse of male interrogators as they recognised that their body was just a shell for what is really vulnerable, namely the spirit and the consciousness.

One prisoner was quoted as say­ing: “The amazing thing is that when you feel yourself strong you don’t feel pain. While getting hit harshly, I did not feel pain.”

Egyptian activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy broke boundaries of per­missible nude art by posting a pic­ture of herself naked on her blog, a move that shocked the Arab world, stirring outrage and condemna­tion.

In fact, Elmahdy fuelled fury by challenging the deep-rooted order of patriarchal control of the female body. Even Tahrir Square youth and activists from both sexes said Elmahdy overdid it, stressing that they “could not understand her point”. To them, she was a lost cause as she tried to imitate the West.

Professor Maha El Said argues there is still a battle for control over the female body. She asks: “Who controls what? Whose gaze defines whom? Which body parts can be revealed? What body language is appropriate?”

Arab culture is born out of Abrahamic religions but it is debated whether the culture fully follows religion. Some say it is clear in religion the way a woman should dress and behave while others say it is a grey area. Re­gardless, the bat­tle for control of the female body goes on fierce­ly.

Egyptian actress and belly dancer Sama el-Masry, who received death threats for criticising Islam­ists, was praised by Tahrir Square youth as “funny” and “coura­geous” after producing satirical YouTube videos about the gov­ernment and the Muslim Brother­hood. She was also applauded for “pushing the boundaries” and be­ing “politically aware”.

Libyan women also experienced inequality when they sought more public appearance. Sahar Mediha al-Naas, founder of Libyan Women for Peace and Freedom, say al­most all female members of the General National Congress (GNC) complained in interviews that the head of the GNC would interrupt their speeches by switching off the microphone while they spoke or ignored their signs to speak during the GNC assembly. They claimed he allowed male members to speak, even if their point was ir­relevant.

Libyan women rode bicy­cles in the streets to impose them­selves in the public sphere. The event Wom­en and Sport was an attempt to cre­ate a weekly sport­ing event for wom­en to push them to exercise in public.

The Farashiya Na­tional Day, celebrat­ing Libyan traditional dress, was an occasion for women to reinforce the authenticity of the Libyan white dress and express opposi­tion to political Islamists’ efforts to force them to wear the black Wah­habi costume.

Egyptian Professor Omaima Abou Bakr focused on the activism of women working in bureaucratic and state agencies, whom she re­ferred to as “femocrats”. She says “femocrats have a difficult relation­ship with female activists” since they are answerable to government and not just to the women’s move­ment, a situation that is bound to create a conflict of interests.

Egyptian scholar Heba Raouf ar­gued that states usually manipu­late women’s causes as a political tool to demonstrate to the outside world the face of a “modern, dem­ocratic, inclusive” state. She shows that the government crackdown on Islamists in Egypt offered a “gold­en opportunity for the secularists to attack Islamists on the issue of women and to portray themselves as supporters of women’s rights, accusing Islamists of being the main threat to women’s cause”.

Research by Palestinian Profes­sor Aitemad Muhanna challenges what she calls “a misconception” that women who support reser­vations to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrim­ination Against Women (CEDAW) were illiterate, poor, rural women who are not familiar with feminist and human rights language.

“Rather, they are highly educat­ed women, who have developed their own discourse of women’s rights within their Islamic frame­work,” she said.

“They prioritise their political identity and work within their lo­cal communities to revive a society focusing on family ties against the “alien, standardised, Western, in­dividualistic norms”.