This article is based on some of the research that I have conducted over the past two years on women’s activism in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, from independence until the Arab uprisings. I collected over one hundred personal narratives from middle class women activists of different generations. This research was initially framed in terms of what is perceived to be a ‘gender paradox’: despite over a century of women’s activism, why do women in Arab countries continue to face some of the largest gender inequalities in the world?
Decolonizing Gender in the Arab World
My research has sought to critically engage with two core assumptions underpinning the formulation of such a paradox. The first assumption is the reduction of women’s activism to the act of resisting patriarchy. This assumption is embedded within the concept of the private/public divide, whereby feminists argue that women are relegated to the private sphere, whilst men dominate the public sphere. This division becomes problematic when we look at evidence from the Arab world, where women’s participation has been encouraged as a means and marker of modernization. Since the end of the nineteenth century, nationalist discourse across the Middle East constructed the figure of a so-called new woman, who was educated and publicly visible. In this context, middle class and elite women began to enter public life, primarily by founding charitable associations but later also creating women’s unions that called for greater rights for women within marriage and widened women’s access to education. These women were not merely ‘resisting patriarchy’ but rather saw themselves as contributing to the struggle against ‘backwardness’ and for the modernization of the nation. In particular, women’s visibility became a key marker of identity for the emerging middle classes and anembodiment of the notion of ‘middle class modernity’ .
The second assumption underpinning the question of women’s rights in the Arab world is embedded within a long-standing orientalist epistemology that sees women’s condition as a marker of the Arab world’s backwardness. On this basis, a popular answer amongst Western commentators to why women’s activism has not resulted in progress in women’s rights has come to be ‘because of the resilience of Arab patriarchy.’ This answer is problematic because of the way it reduces the causes of women’s subordination to Arab cultural values and beliefs, implying that the ‘West’ sets the civilizational standard for women’s rights. Moreover, arguments about the deficient nature of Arab culture with regards to women completely erase structures of power based particularly on class and nationality and ignore the role of global political economy and geopolitics in the reproduction of these intersecting hierarchies. Therefore, to formulate the title of this article as ‘How the West Undermined Women’s Rights in the Arab World’ is not to promise an exposé of Western government covert operations but rather to problematize, from the start, the way that we commonly think about women’s rights and women’s activism in the Arab world. In particular, I wish to highlight the geopolitical dimensions in the construction of gender norms and the resistance to them, as well as to extend our understanding of women’s rights beyond laws and public policies to include the ways in which women publicly subvert and resignify gender norms through their public participation.
The Rise of Radical Movements after 1967
This article focuses on the period from 1967 until the 1980s, in which the Arab world saw a rise of radical and revolutionary movements, challenging the political and geopolitical status quo, and their subsequent defeat by Western allies in the region (in particular, the Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian and Israeli regimes). As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Arab uprisings, it is important to reflect on the political turmoil and contentious politics unleashed after 1967, which reveal some interesting parallels to the period from 2011 until 2013.
The massive defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war brought into question the legitimacy of the pan-Arab project and led to a new era in Arab politics. Much has been written on the military and political dimensions of the 1967 war (amongst others, Louis and Shlaim) as well as on the intellectual soul searching that followed the massive defeat. However, there has been almost no attention paid to the gendered implications of the defeat. This is significant not only because it marginalizes the particular experiences of women and indeed men as gendered subjects and citizens. It is also significant because the 1967 defeat created a new opportunity for women to transgress the state feminist gender norms that had been integral to post-independence state building.
In Egypt, the profound shock of the 1967 defeat unleashed new oppositional movements, at the center of which was the student movement. It was initially sparked by outrage at the lenient prison sentences handed down to the army generals responsible for Egypt’s defeat in the war. However, the demands of the students went much further, including calls for greater political freedoms as well as the removal of intelligence and police from university campuses. In January 1972, thousands of students participated in demonstrations, leading to a sit-in in Tahrir Square. The students were forcibly dispersed the following day and some were arrested. However, radical students continued to raise their national and political demands, in addition to protesting against the arrest of their colleagues.
Within these leftist and nationalist movements, issues of women’s rights and liberation were subordinated to the national and political goals of resisting imperialism and authoritarianism, fighting for social justice, and liberating Palestine. Whilst movement leadersbelieved that women should be mobilized to participate in the public sphere as a means of modernizing Arab societies, they ignored gender inequality within the private sphere.
Yet these movements successfully mobilized young women into political activism on an unprecedented level. The post-1967 political turmoil provided opportunities for young women to transgress dominant gender norms. Egyptian human rights activist Aida Seif al-Dawla recalls being at university during the height of the Egyptian student movement:
I remember I did things then, which now I am thinking about, I would never do them again […] You just walked into a lecture room and [would say]… “What the hell are you doing sitting in the lecture room? You should join the movement!” […] and then you walk out, and it’s so embarrassing to think about….
Another activist was Hala Shukrallah, who was born in Cairo in 1954, but had spent a large part of her youth in Canada, where her father was an ambassador for the Arab League. She returned to Egypt in 1971 and was propelled into activism by the arrest of her brothers, who were active in the student movement. Despite her young age, she became one of the leaders of the movement of the families of the arrested. She recalls a meeting with the speaker of the parliament, who knew her father very well:
so he started speaking very personally with me, “Oh Hala, I have known you since you were a child,” So I told him, “Please, be very professional.” And he was very upset about it. I of course was very rude. But anyway, that was natural for the time.
The memories of many of the women I interviewed suggest a social-political environment in flux in the period after the 1967 defeat. Diverse social and political movements had emerged to challenge the political, geopolitical and social status quo. Whilst ideologically, these movements had problematic attitudes to gender equality, nevertheless, they provided a terrain upon which young, middle class women could subvert gendered hierarchies and transgress dominant norms of gendered respectability, by participating in street demonstrations, joining political groups, challenging authority, and disobeying parents. Some were even arrested. In this way, women aligned their performances of radical new gender constructs with resistance to the socio-political and geopolitical status quo.
However, this post-1967 revolutionary wave in the Arab countries was eventually defeated by Western allies in the region. In particular, US support for Egypt amounted to billions of dollars in aid after President Anwar al-Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The counter-revolution not only targeted radical political forces but also women and gender.
President Sadat first attempted to undermine radical political movements by allowing Islamists to operate openly on university campuses, in contrast to the rule of his predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser, under whom Islamists had been imprisoned and even executed. Women’s bodies and gender norms were central to this counter-revolution. Aida Seif al-Dawla recalls that the Islamists took over the student union in 1975 and began to advertise Islamic dress at reduced cost: ‘And it was during that time […] [that] I got to know a couple of young women, both of them were veiled and we got on well and so […] they started saying “why don’t you put [on] the veil.”’
Aida also remembers the conflicts between Islamists and other students:
Yeah, so those final years in university, there were the Islamists on the one hand and the Nasserists on the other hand. And the confrontations were violent, […] students got beaten up. Of course, we as women, we did not get beaten up. I didn’t at least. But we received a lot of abuse. […] you know calling us “bitches” and “whores” and that “we are after husbands” and that’s why we are involved in politics and stuff like that. So I was happy to graduate.
Sadat’s support for Islamist students and his broader rapprochement with political Islamists was not only a way to counter the influence of Nasserist and leftist political groups but also to signal a clear break from Nasser’s secular modernizing regime, central to which had been state feminism. Sadat undermined some of the gains for middle class women through the introduction of infitah or economic reforms privileging the private sector. The relative decline in public sector wages as a consequence of infitah disproportionately impacted women, for whom the public sector was the employer of first choice. For the first time, and in a marked departure from the Nasserist era, there were public debates questioning the desirability of women working, and the government ‘offered numerous incentives [to women] to take a leave of absence without pay to raise their children and/or to work on a part-time basis’. Such attitudes reflected growing social conservatism, which was being encouraged by Islamists.
Popular resistance to infitah culminated in the 1977 uprising, called the ‘bread riots’ in Western media, or the ‘bread uprising’ by Egyptians. The protests were triggered by the government’s announcement of the removal of subsidies on several basic commodities, including sugar, bread and rice, as well as reductions in state salaries, which led to a doubling of prices over night. On 17 January, workers walked out of their factories, and were later joined by thousands of students, civil servants, and other Egyptians, who marched on downtown Cairo. Protests spread throughout the country.
All in all, 160 demonstrators were killed and eight hundred injured by security forces.. Thousands of leftists were rounded up and imprisoned, accused of attempting to overthrow the regime. Many were released without charge, but not before having spent up to 6 months in administrative detention. Human rights activist Magda Adli, then a student of medicine at Al-Azhar University, was one of about twenty individuals arrested for her involvement in the uprising and spent more than a year in prison.
I was arrested at university and I was charged with attempts to overthrow the regime and joining a secret organization and all the rest of the list of accusations by the state security that is still used until now. I spent forteen or fifteen months in jail. […] So, that was a year lost from university […] And, I was sentenced to three years in jail, along with other people too, around twenty people were sentenced, […] but I didn’t do the rest of the time… I was under surveillance by the state security all the time even when I was doing my exams… and every new case that state security had against political activists or socialists or whomever, I was wanted for interrogation, […] So, I was playing cat and mouse with the state security all the time, so they couldn’t catch me although I was charged with three cases after that, until I graduated.
The wide scale clampdown on activists after 1977 heralded the end of the leftist student movement as a force within Egyptian politics. Many of the underground Marxist organizations began to break up. Similar to what we have seen in Egypt since the summer of 2013, many activists became disillusioned and withdrew from public activism. Many took time out to read, pursue careers or doctoral studies abroad, reflecting upon and revising their previous political-ideological beliefs. Women who attended university in the 1980s remarked to me that there was a near absence of political activism on Egyptian campuses beyond Islamist student groups.
Decoupling of Women’s Rights Agendas and Activism from Popular Struggles
A central part of the counter-revolution was the restoration of the gender status quo ante, in which women were expected to comply with gendered hierarchies and notions of female respectability. However, this did not end women’s public involvement. Perhaps paradoxically, women’s independent organizations and initiatives began to flourish in the aftermath of the counter-revolution. The New Woman study group, which later became the New Woman Foundation, was started by former members of the student movement in order to understand women’s specific subordination. Nawal El-Saadawi established the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, raising the issue of violence against women. In 1985, a group of women activists and lawyers created a coalition against the repeal of the relatively progressive 1979 amendments to the personal status law, amongst other initiatives in the 1980s (see Al-Ali for further details).
The re-emergence of women’s independent associations in Egypt, for the first time since the 1950s, gave space to women to articulate a new gender discourse that escaped the problematic subordination of women’s issues within revolutionary and radical ideologies. However, in a context where popular forces were defeated and political opposition groups, with the exception of the Islamists, were weak, it also led to the isolation of women’s rights agendas within domestic and regional politics. This isolation was exacerbated by the increasing ‘NGOization’ of the women’s movements after 1990, which did not support the mobilization of wider constituencies. Moreover, women’s rights demands became delegitimized by the fact that the Egyptian regime selectively instrumentalized women’s rights and attempted to coopt women’s organizations, through the National Council for Women for example. This was part of projecting a ‘modern’ image abroad and securitizing women’s rights within the US-led alliance against ‘terrorism’. 
It is therefore unsurprising that when popular movements began to emerge after 2000, initially sparked by the Second Palestinian Intifada, women’s rights issues were not on the agenda. Women were highly visible in these movements, yet, unlike the revolutionary movements after 1967, there was almost no attempt to include ‘the woman question’ within these movements’ opposition to US imperialism, neoliberalism and authoritarianism.
Repopularizing and Depopularizing Women’s Rights after 2011
It was only between 2011 and 2013 that women were able to re-insert the ‘woman question’ back into popular movements. In response to threats to women’s rights and increasing violence against women activists, under the rule of SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, mass-based women’s organizing emerged outside of the established women’s NGOs. Egyptian women activists were at the forefront of struggles for social justice and democracy in post-Mubarak Egypt, whilst also raising gender-specific demands with regards to women’s participation and bodily integrity. Indeed, they successfully integrated the transformation of gender norms into demands for broader sociopolitical transformations (see various chapters in El Said, Meari and Pratt).
However, the achievements of women’s independent, mass activism has been undermined by the political polarization and increasing authoritarianism seen since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Whilst the post-July 2013 regime has moved to extend women’s rights through the constitution and anti-sexual harassment law of 2014, it has also severely restricted freedom of association and expression. In this way, a new patriarchal bargain is crucial to the counter-revolution, in which the regime protects women’s rights, and in return, women must abandon their freedom to organize and define their own agenda. As I wrote last year, activists are facing a huge challenge in their simultaneous attempts to maintain their dynamic paradigm for gender justice, to resist state cooptation and top-down impositions, and to embed revolutionary gender constructs from the grassroots-upwards.
In this article I aimed to problematize two assumptions about women’s activism and women’s rights in the Arab world. First, I have attempted to expand our concept of women’s agency beyond resistance to patriarchy and to demonstrate the ways in which the subversion and resignification of gender norms were also part of a counter-hegemonic movement against the post-1967 socio-political and geopolitical order. In other words, women’s participation in radical movements embodied sociopolitical transformation, including the transformation of gender norms. In this respect, we see parallels in the emergence of mass-based women’s activism as part of revolutionary struggles after 2011.
Second, I have aimed to problematize the notion that the West is an agent of progress and women’s rights in the Arab world. Rather, as a result of their geopolitical interests, they have supported regimes that have clamped down on revolutionary and radical popular movements and suppressed women’s embodiments of radical femininities. Over the long term, the demise of radical, secular movements has led to a decoupling of secular women’s rights agendas from local popular projects, paving the way for their cooption and instrumentalization by authoritarian regimes and international actors and rendering secular women’s rights activists vulnerable to accusations of representing foreign agendas. Women activists face similar dangers today in the context of an ongoing counter-revolution across the Arab world.
[This article is a condensed version of a lecture of the same name given at LSE Middle East Centre on 20 January 2016. The longer lecture also discusses Lebanon and Jordan. A podcast of the lecture can be heard here.The lecture is based on some of the material from a forthcoming book on women’s activism in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. A digital archive of all the interviews conducted for this research will be made publicly available alongside the publication of the book].
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