Arab women protesters – not free, just figureheads

Nesrine Malik writes:

A common theme since the Arab uprisings started has been the celebration of the role of women in the protests. Some have even gone so far as to say that the “stereotype of the submissive, repressed victim has been shattered by female protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen”. I am not sure that women on the ground in these countries feel the same way, or feel that their participation in the protests is unprecedented.

While I understand how tempting it is to draw grand conclusions from such seismic events, those who say the perception of women has been revolutionised are either jejune or lacking in historical perspective.

It is nothing new. Women have often been at the forefront of popular dissent on the rare occasions when it has happened, and activists such as Nawal el Saadawi have been thorns in the side of Arab regimes for decades. Tawakul Karman, the 32-year-old Yemeni human rights activist, who now finds herself heading the popular protest movement had been a campaigner and agitator long before the protests started.

Soumaya Ghannoushi also cites the case of Saida Sadouni, a 77-year-old woman who is now “widely hailed as the mother of Tunisia’s revolution, a living record of her country’s modern history and its struggle for emancipation”. This is not an uncommon theme.

While the prominence of women in the revolutions has been moving, there is a psychology behind celebrating and glorifying women’s political activity when it is part of a popular push. In these times women are almost tokenised by men as the ultimate downtrodden victims, the sign that things are desperate, that even members of the fairer sex are leaving their hearths and taking to the streets. The perception isn’t that women are fighting for their own rights, but merely that they are underwriting the revolution by bringing their matronly dignity to the crowd like some mascot.

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