Sahar Khamis and Amel Mili (eds.), Arab Women’s Activism and Socio-Political Transformation: Unfinished Gendered Revolutions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Sahar Khamis and Amel Mili (SK & AM): We felt the need to dispel a number of persistent stereotypes and misconceptions about Arab women and their lived realities, identities, challenges, and resistances. Arab women largely suffer from three layers of intertwined invisibilities at the socioeconomic, academic, and media levels. In an effort to overcome these multiple invisibilities, we decided to embark on the journey of putting together this edited volume to unpack the varied struggles in which Arab women are engaging on three parallel levels: politically, socially, and legally.
We formulated the broad themes and goals of this edited volume, and then invited different authors we perceived as best suited to achieve these goals, based on their own areas of expertise and previous publication records. We gave the authors the necessary latitude to draw on their varied perspectives and backgrounds when formulating the main themes and arguments of their individual chapters. We were keen to ensure maximum diversity by inviting authors from different Arab countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Morocco, as well as authors from outside the Arab world including in the United States and Japan. We were equally keen to achieve gender diversity by including a male author, who wrote an excellent chapter on Morocco, because we truly believe in the value and significance of diversity across both national and gender levels.
Like any edited volume, this book represents a snapshot of the intellectual reflections of both the contributors and editors around the various topics which are tackled in this volume.
J: What is the relationship between democracy and gender rights in the MENA region?
SK & AM: Despite the fact that gender standards and democratic standards are highly correlated worldwide, the correlation between them has not been deeply investigated in many countries in the MENA region. Therefore, we felt the pressing need to explore the intertwined evolutions of gendered struggles and sociopolitical transformations in the MENA region and to address their many intersections and overlaps.
Like democracy, gender equality has been largely missing in the MENA region, and, therefore, the study of Arab women’s struggles to achieve gender equality is inseparable from the study of political transitions for democracy. In light of recent developments in the MENA region, broadly defined as the “Arab Spring” uprisings, women played central roles, both as actors of change and subjects of this change.
There is ample evidence that Arab women and their organizations played a key role in political organization and mobilization and in defining the terms of the political debate during these transitions. Unsurprisingly, this unique “revolutionary moment” was characterized by an increased visibility of Arab women who emerged as both actors as well as symbols of the revolution. However, as soon as the “constitutional building” process started to redraw existing constitutions in some Arab countries, and to negotiate new ones in other countries, the “Arab Spring” seemed to enter a new discursive space that would dictate the terms of what success and failure meant, and women became subjects of this change. Detours from democratic transitions which have been witnessed in the so-called “post-Arab Spring” countries, albeit in various forms and to various degrees, have had detrimental effects on the intertwined struggle for gender equality and women’s rights.
Therefore, our attempt to examine women’s resistances and continued struggles for a more equitable and egalitarian society is also an attempt to shed light on the intertwined evolutions of gendered struggles and sociopolitical transformations taking place in the MENA region and their potential impact on the future of democracy in this volatile part of the world. Far from being completed, these efforts and struggles are still ongoing and evolving, as the subtitle of this edited volume, “Unfinished Gendered Revolutions,” implies.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SK & AM: This book examines Arab women’s multiple resistances and continued struggles to secure gender equality and to create more egalitarian societies. It attempts to unpack the complexities and nuances of the intertwined evolutions of gender activism and sociopolitical transformations in the MENA region. We covered a wide range of topics in a number of Arab countries, ranging from women’s struggle to achieve full citizenship rights and gender equality in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt to their fight against sexual harassment in Egypt, their ongoing social battles in Saudi Arabia, and their political struggles to amplify their voices in Lebanon and Bahrain.
The main focus of the book is the gendered aspect of the sociopolitical transitions which have been taking place in the Arab region before, during, and after the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings. While we fully acknowledge the significance of these uprisings, and their multiple and far-reaching effects, we resist the temptation to limit the analysis of Arab women’s activisms and struggles to the confines of this historical moment. Rather, we adopt a more holistic and comprehensive perspective which accounts for Arab women’s feminist movements and struggles across a wider timeframe.
Although the scope of this book extends temporally beyond the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and it extends spatially to cover countries which were part of this wave of upheaval as well as those which were not, it still pays special attention to the “Arab Spring” as a particularly important turning point in contemporary Arab history. It recognizes it had numerous implications for Arab women’s ongoing political, social, and legal struggles, which are acknowledged and addressed in this edited volume.
In analyzing these complex and intertwined processes, we avoid faulty assumptions of causality between gendered activisms and resistances, on the one hand, and the shift towards sociopolitical transformation and democratic reform, on the other hand. In other words, we do not assume that one is directly caused by the other, or that one necessarily leads to the other. Rather, we deal with both phenomena and depict them as simply correlated and associated with each other, with a possible “catalyzing” effect whereby each could possibly boost and speed up the other, rather than create it.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SK: As an ethnographer, a feminist researcher, and an Affiliate Professor of women’s studies, the notion of women’s rights and their struggle for these rights has always occupied my mind. Therefore, the “Arab Spring” moment, especially the visibility of Arab women’s roles in it and their struggles to pave the way for it and to contribute to its initial success, certainly had a huge impact on my research agenda. I have heavily focused on the notion of “cyberactivism,” and the accompanying sister phenomenon of “cyberfeminism,” in a lot of my research studies, in order to unpack the nuances and complexities of these phenomena, their developments, and their impacts. In doing so, I tried to steer away from the notion of “technological determinism,” which positions social media as the perfect tools for democratic reform and transformation, by accounting for myriad other factors that have been tactfully tackled in the various chapters in this edited volume. Therefore, this edited volume is a natural extension of my scholarship in this area of research.
AM: In my previous work, I have analyzed the correlation between democratization and women’s rights in the Maghreb. My previous empirical research tackled the paradox that gender standards and democratic standards are not correlated in the Maghreb, despite ample evidence that these two factors are highly correlated worldwide. In light of recent developments in the MENA region and the visibility and centrality of women’s roles in the midst of the 2011 uprisings and beyond, including their continued struggles during the so-called “constitutional building” phase, I wanted to revisit this “paradox” again and to shed more light on it. That is how the theme of this book intersects with my previous research agenda.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SK: My current research agenda mirrors the new realities in the Arab political and mediated landscapes a decade after the “Arab Spring,” by focusing on the shifts towards increased digital authoritarianism in this volatile region. I am writing on the heightened governmental crackdowns on the opponents of authoritarian regimes, both at home and in the diaspora, as well as online and offline, which escalated amid the Covid-19 pandemic. I am paying special attention to the gender-related implications of these new developments.
AM: I am currently expanding my research on the significance of legal activism in the Arab world and its implications for women’s rights, with a special focus on the role that the administrative court in Tunisia has played during the “Arab Spring” and beyond, to support the democratic transition, in general, and gender equality, in particular.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SK & AM: This edited volume should be of interest to both a general, mainstream audience who would like to understand gender dynamics in the MENA region, as well as a specialized, academic audience. The academic audience would include faculty, students, and researchers interested in understanding the intersections of gendered activism and sociopolitical transitions in the MENA region, in particular, and the sociopolitical dynamics of this region, more broadly. We hope that this edited volume can help readers gain better and deeper insight into the sociopolitical forces at play in the MENA region, which are constantly impacting Arab women’s social, political, and legal realities. We also hope it will help readers obtain a more holistic and nuanced understanding of how past and recent developments in this region may overlap, intersect, or diverge when it comes to influencing these dynamic realities, and why this is the case.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-3)
When in December 2010 a street vendor from a small town in central Tunisia self-immolated in a desperate act of protest against both economic deprivation and the humiliation resulting from mistreatment by the police and local authorities, he unwittingly opened the floodgates of longstanding discontent and frustration at the regime of president Ben Ali, and inspired citizens across the region to stand up against their respective regimes, long perceived to be corrupt, incompetent, and illegitimate. The impact of the tweeted image of this young man setting himself on fire was so profound that it prompted some observers to claim that the flames metaphorically ignited a wildfire that engulfed the entire Arab region.
Following the example of Tunisians, citizens across the region conquered their fears, raised their voices, and felt empowered to stand up and challenge the authority of their tyrannical regimes, demanding political and social reforms. These sweeping regional uprisings came to be known as the “Arab Spring” or the “Arab Awakening.” While different Arab countries embarked on different journeys in their political transitions, all have experienced a level of public debate that was unprecedented, in both substance and boldness. In many of these countries, political parties and civil society organizations argued in favor of drafting and enacting new constitutions in an attempt to break away from the past, and to ensure that it never returns.
Very early on, gender issues took center stage in the sociopolitical transformations and debates that arose in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings. There are several reasons for the emergence of gender issues at the heart of these sociopolitical transitions and struggles in the Arab world.
One important reason for the prominence of gender issues is the fact that women played an important and prominent role in political transitions in the so-called Arab Spring countries. Women of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious orientations, and political ideologies emerged as prominent figures in the midst of these uprisings, carving new places for themselves, even in some of the most traditional, conservative communities, as heroines, public opinion leaders, and role models, for both men and women to look up to and emulate. Many of them took to the streets, side by side with men, facing the dangers of being killed, arrested, or harassed, with amazing bravery and unmatched courage and many of them resorted to new media tools, such as social media applications, to advance their struggles and support their causes (Al-Malki et al. 2012; Heideman and Youssef 2012; Khamis 2011, 2013; Radsch 2011, 2012; Radsch and Khamis 2013).
Through engaging in these multiple forms of struggle, Arab women were, in fact, contesting and redefining new gendered spaces, politically, legally, and socially, which involved risk-taking and the exercise of agency, despite all forms of intimidation and in the face of many constraints. Images and records of the Arab Spring not only confirm the ubiquitous presence of women alongside men in virtually all stages of the uprisings but also attest to their visible and prominent leadership roles. Many women have been seen at the forefront of protests and marches, while others were caught on camera, defying army soldiers, and pushing through riot police and barricades.
These acts of heroism, on the one hand, confirm the historical continuity of Arab women’s struggles, through both social and political movements, while, on the other hand, they signal important shifts in how Arab women articulate and perform their subjectivities as agents of change. This is especially true since, in engaging in these forms of struggle, Arab women were not just confining themselves to stereotypical gender roles, such as nurturing or supporting men in their struggle for freedom; rather, they assumed non-stereotypical gender roles by being in the front lines of resistance, risking their own lives, and exposing themselves to the dangers of arrest or assault. Therefore, we can confidently say that the Arab Spring unveiled “numerous examples of courageous Arab women heroes risking not only their reputation but also their physical safety for the sake of reform” (Al-Malki et al. 2012, p. 81).
In doing so, they were determined to merge the struggle for equal citizenship and full participation in the political arena with that for greater gender equality in the social arena in their newly transforming societies and transitioning states. For this reason, it has been said that while men were fighting one struggle in the midst of the Arab Spring movements—namely, the political struggle to end dictatorship and to pave the way for democracy—Arab women were fighting two parallel struggles: one to end political injustice and the other to end social injustice simultaneously (Al-Malki et al. 2012; Khamis 2013).
In other words, it could be said that another reason for the prominence of gender issues in the midst of the Arab Spring or Arab Awakening movements is the crossover from the political to the social realm, and vice versa, as illustrated by the myriad of overlapping issues and intersecting activities which Arab women took part in, and across these two domains simultaneously.