Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad, Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring (New York University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Rita Stephan and Mounira Charrad (RS & MC): When women flamed in protests from Tunisia to Yemen calling for political reforms, the world was quick to proclaim that Arab women had finally risen. Yet we knew that Arab women had been protesting, voting, running for office, and leading organizations since the 1920s, through the Arab Spring years, and up until today. We saw the events of the Arab Spring as a historical marker that brought women’s activism to the fore and during which women’s activism intensified.

We decided to put out a call for paper on the topic of women’s protest and resistance. We received a larger number of submissions than we ever expected. The submissions offered a diverse range of perspectives focusing on marginalized voices, including rural women, housewives, students, and artists. So as to accommodate as many voices as possible, we limited the length of each chapter. In addition to voices not heard before and discovered through our call for papers, we invited some of the most distinguished scholars in the field of gender politics in the region to contribute to the volume. We chose forty essays that cover sixteen geographical contexts to include even the Arab Diaspora. We combined analysis and testimony by authors from diverse communities in the region as well as Australia, Japan, Europe, and the United States. For the cover, we chose to represent the diversity of Arab women by including an image of the most recent, at the time, revolution in Sudan.

RS & MC: In Women Rising, we want to elevate women’s voices and highlight their resistance. We aim to amplify marginalized voices that are often excluded from the political arena and to offer an on-the-ground understanding of Arab women’s activism. Now that the Arab Spring 1.0 and 2.0 protests are no longer popular media stories, this book stresses the significance of preserving women’s perspectives on their contributions to political and social change in the region. Women Rising is about women’s political resistance in sixteen countries before, during, and since the Arab Spring protests first began in 2011. It brings together groundbreaking essays by female activists and scholars documenting women’s resistance and provides insight into a diverse range of perspectives and voices across the entire movement. In telling the story of women’s activism, Women Rising offers an in-depth understanding of an important twenty-first century movement. It demonstrates how Arab women have been resisting victimization and marginalization and continue to struggle to be accepted as full citizens with equal rights locally and globally.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

RS & MC: In the past, Mounira has studied top-down gender reforms, for which state actors were primarily responsible and Rita has examined the role of grassroots women’s movements in MENA countries. The book builds on our respective work and moves in new directions. Rather than focusing on top-down reforms, we now consider women’s call for reforms. Rather than grassroots women’s activism in a given space, we now expand to cover a wide range of situations and countries.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RS & MC: Women Rising speaks to scholars interested not only in Middle Eastern gender politics but also in women’s movements throughout the world. In addition, we aim to reach a broad audience concerned with understanding contemporary social and women’s movements. As a textbook, Women Rising makes a great addition to lists of required and recommended readings in graduate and undergraduate courses on feminism, social movements, protests and revolutions, Middle Eastern studies, Middle Eastern women’s studies, and the Arab Spring. More broadly, and because of its highly accessible writing style, the book appeals to a general readership as it offers an overview of Arab feminists’ contributions and struggles for democracy, liberation, and human rights. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RS: I am working on an edited collection on the intersection of gender and the COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa and addressing challenges and opportunities in public health, policies, inclusion, safety, and economic livelihoods. By taking a gender-focused lens, this book will contribute to understanding the contemporary social impact of public health on women and LGBTQI groups during the crises of the pandemic in various contexts of war, conflict, and instability.

MC: I am working on a book on secular feminist associations in Tunisia. I consider how these associations resisted authoritarianism for several decades and built enough organizational strength to have a voice in national politics in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I see the book as a contribution to understanding the development of civil society and feminism under conditions of repression in the MENA region and elsewhere.

J: What practices helped you complete this work?

RS & MC: Constant communication is what helped us bring the book to completion.  As co-editors, we responded quickly to each other’s ideas, suggestions, drafts, and revisions. We also maintained tight communication with contributors when we requested revisions or further information. Editors and contributors shared a commitment to the ideas captured in the book. Cooperation and a spirit of team work were key to the project. It also greatly helped that we were on the same wave length. We enjoyed working closely with each other again, as we had when Rita was Mounira’s graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas. This was another step in our intellectual partnership.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 2-7)

Some have been quick to write democracy’s obituary in the region, but we argue that the democratic transition to consolidation is messy, lengthy, and problematic. Like us, however, the contributors to this volume believe that there is no going back. Social and political norms that have traditionally rewarded compliance are now changing to encourage innovation; male dominated social structures and powers are now shaken; and women have gained confidence in their ability to influence politics and to challenge the secular-Islamist power poles. We believe that a social revolution has made women more self-assured of their collective power to fight exclusion, silence and oppression.

Women Rising: In the Arab Spring and Beyond features women fighting for reformsresisting oppression; and engaging in protests and revolutions to change the status quo. The volume also takes these terms beyond the chronological, geographical, and thematic spaces of the Arab Spring and explores women’s agency before and after the events of the Arab Spring themselves. While the majority of the pieces in this volume focus on women’s activism during the Arab Spring uprisings, ten chapters emphasize the expression of women’s agency that predates this era. By providing historical context for their political activism long before the Arab Spring, these contributions shake the claim that Arab women just “woke up” in 2011. In the same vein, women’s struggle for rights extends beyond this historical marker itself, and seven pieces continue into the aftermath of Arab Spring in a variety of angles.

We present resistance, revolution, and reform as three theoretical concepts that correspond to three bodies of literature. The Arab Spring events brought new challenges to the fields of feminism, social revolutions, and gender politics, as we know them.

Resisting Feminist Narrative: Just as Arab women resisted oppressive regimes, their activism was also a form of resistance to how they have been portrayed in the narrative of Western, Transnational, and even Third World feminisms. Their actions during the uprisings revealed the shortcomings of how Arab women were overwhelmingly misrepresented as “victims” and subordinate by nature; who operate in a highly patriarchal setting; and whose activism is limited to “bargaining with patriarchy”. This representation strips Arab women from their feminism and denies them agency and “the ability to exercise their own approaches to local and global problem solving”. Western scholars who claim expertise on global and Middle Eastern gender politics often misinterpret Arab women’s activism as lacking feminist consciousness or identification. Other Western feminists tend to believe that gender struggle is universal; in other words, women everywhere tend to face similar oppression merely by virtue of their sex/gender, and regardless of their cultural or geopolitical context. Therefore, these feminists assume that they can play a leadership role in saving, and speaking on behalf of, Third World, minority, and Arab women.

Equally misrepresentative of Arab women’s activism are transnational feminists who view gender inequality from a single global lens that focuses on the intersection of nationality, sex, class, and race. They assume a unified subaltern identity exists among all victims of colonialism and imperialism. While colonial powers are indeed oppressive, past and present, Arabs’ relations with them have been complicated, before and after the Arab Spring. Internal conflicts and unusual alliances have made Western forces the lesser of two evils in some instances, and have aided Arab women’s resistance of their corrupt regimes, oppressive laws, and restrictive social norms. In their position of rejecting nation-states and viewing nationalism as detrimental to feminism, transnational feminists have claimed hegemony over the discourse on Third World women. The Arab Spring showed that women’s struggle within the context of the nation-state is still relevant, and that the nostalgic feelings of global sisterhood were shaken even within the region’s boundaries.

The literature on Third World feminism does not fully represent Arab feminists either. Despite sharing a colonial heritage with East Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, Arab women view their experience as hybrid. Moreover, Third World feminism literature, which is based mostly on the experience of these East Asian, African, and Latin America women, assumes that, by extension, their struggles apply to Arab women. But this is not the case. Arab women see themselves living in a geography that is hybrid economically, politically, and socially.

Economically, one third of Arab countries are high income, and the rest are either high middle or lower middle incomePolitically, Arab countries range between oil-rich monarchies, dictatorships, and quasi democracies. Socially, Arab social norms vary between conservative Saudi Arabian and westernized Lebanese. With these diverse characteristics, Arab women tend to construct their feminism vis-à-vis Western, Transnational and Third World Feminisms, on an intersectional understanding of nation, patriarchy, and Islam as both resources for mobilization and grounds for revolution and reform.

Social Revolutions: Numerous experts argue that the Arab Spring uprisings were failed revolutions that have instead produced violence and renewed state repression. They claim that a true shift in politics, institutions, and identities did not occur; and that “most rulers of the Middle East managed to survive the uprisings of 2011… [and] dictators have strengthened their grip on power”. Typically, democratic transitions are multicausal, notoriously difficult, and unpredictably nonlinear. Goldstone reminds us “Revolutions are just the beginning of a long process. Even after a peaceful revolution, it generally takes half a decade for any type of stable regime to consolidate” and Kurzman further posits, “Most new democracies fail. They dissolve into civil wars, or are overtaken by coups or collapse under authoritarian bureaucrats and demagogues”.

We propose to shift the evaluation of the Arab Spring to a different spectrum and caution against declaring the game as “over.” The uprisings of the Arab Spring did not produce revolutions in the sense of “rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures” as defined by Skocpol. However, they did raise citizens’ awareness of the power of collective action. We believe that while the foundations for democratic transition were not present before the Arab Spring, they certainly emerged with it. What we see as irreversible after the Arab Spring is the fact that citizens now realize the power of collective action: protest and campaigning. At the very least, the Arab Spring uprisings produced a political environment amenable to advancing women’s political participation and contentious collective action.

Simply put, the revolution of Arab women resulted in their increased participation in public life, representation in decision-making, and emboldened leadership of women’s organizations. The rising rates of women’s participation in the public sphere also led them to assume a larger role in governance. In December 2016, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported that women’s representation in parliament (single or lower house) in the Arab states reached 19.1 percent, compared to 12.5 percent in 2010 (the lowest in the world then). This advancement however does not reflect improving conditions for women in all Arab countries. Arab women continue to face “obstacles toward achieving parity in elected legislative bodies” and, despite many great achievements, “stark variations across the region in terms of the numerical presence of women in Arab parliaments” remain.

Since 2011, women have also infiltrated the contentious collective space en masse. They fought for women’s rights and representation as parts of the greater plight for political and economic reforms. They made their claim not only through women’s organizations but also in nongovernmental, nonprofit, governmental, and for-profit entities. Although, to the best of our knowledge, no comprehensive data has been collected on women’s organizations in the region, the chapters in this volume provide evidence on the activism that is taking place. In a nutshell, however diverse their geographies and societies might have been, women’s participation in the Arab Spring has elevated their ability to influence the decision-making process. Despite being underrepresented in the new political order, women are refusing to take the backseat.

Reforms in Gender Politics: Historically, liberalization of women’s rights in the region has been initiated primarily from above. In exploring the process of the expansion of women’s rights in the Tunisian Law of Personal Status in 1956, Charrad shows that reforms were a state-building strategy, initiated in the absence of on-the-ground activism, designed to weaken tribal governance, and to contribute to the formation of a “modern” centralized state. This top-down model locates power as it relates to gender with the state, rather than with civil society or the public. Whereas the bottom-up, grassroots, model suggests that persons’ dissatisfaction with the gendered social order results in pressure and social change, the top-down model demonstrates how the agency of the state shapes power as it relates to gender. Since the Arab Spring women have intensified pressure from below in efforts to introduce reforms in gender politics.

Women collaborated with international actors, civil society organizations, private sector partners, and “willing” state actors to pass a number of gender legal reforms that protect women’s rights, combat gender-based violence, and promote gender equality. Most notably (listed in chronological order from most recent) were laws criminalizing gender-based violence in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria and advancing social and political rights in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.