'Blue Bra Girl' and Other Setbacks for Women Since Arab Spring

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The Arab Spring was expected to lead to an expansion of women’s rights, but a look at misogynistic events during and after the revolutions does not evoke much optimism, writes Bissan al-Sheikh. New debates over sexist laws in even the most liberal societies is enough to make people question their support for the Arab Spring, says the author.

If the state of women's rights is any indication of the level of democracy in a country, then the early fruits of the Arab Spring have been a disaster. While it is too early to judge revolutions that are either still ongoing or groping their way to a future beyond street protests, it is difficult to ignore a number of worrying developments.

When the protests started in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria about one year ago, women played a key role in the revolutionary scene, especially in media appearances. For those who remember, the first images of the revolution were of young men and women in the streets, working side by side for a common goal and speaking with one voice, ignoring gender differences. Female activists emerged both on the political scene and in the field, and they often outnumbered their male counterparts. In doing so, women broke down barriers of fear and social taboos, establishing themselves through their calls for change. Even in Libya, where early revolutionaries took up arms, women were genuine soldiers in the behind-the-scenes war and in its support trenches. The international recognition women received for their role in the Arab Spring was demonstrated by the Nobel Peace prize awarded to Yemeni woman Tawakel Karman.

However, as soon as the revolutionary euphoria subsided—and with it the excessive optimism that generally accompanies revolutions—women were the first victims to those streets and squares they had earlier filled with their bodies and voices. In the blink of an eye, and through “democratic” mechanisms, those bodies and voices went back to being “defective.” The political scene was soon dominated by those who wanted to remove women from public life and put them in the custody of men. As soon as the regimes fell, the walls of gender discrimination went up: Women were beaten, sexually abused and expelled from public squares. Their male colleagues did not share in this experience—women were subjected to it simply because they were women.

Mentioning the “blue bra girl” is enough to evoke the image of a young Egyptian woman being deliberately humiliated simply because—like all other women in the world—she wears a bra! But most of those who followed her story or even sympathized with her don't know her name. A description of her underwear simply summarizes her identity. Hostility towards women and their systematic humiliation reached their peak with the virginity tests [performed by the military against female Egyptian protestors]. There were also the rape campaigns in Libya—carried out by both the rebels and the supporters of the regime. Such behavior is still taking place in Syria now. Even Tawakel Karman’s supporters who filled the streets of Sana'a rallied behind the slogan "one woman is equal to one thousand men."

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These might seem like crude examples drawn solely from a context of revolutionary fervor, but a quick listing of human rights incidents after the Arab Spring is not reassuring.

In Libya, the first decision taken by “revolutionary” President of the National Transitional Council Mustafa Abdul Jalil was to annul all laws contrary to the Islamic Sharia, including the laws governing marriage, divorce and [polygamy]. But polygamy, which was banned by Muammar Gaddafi except under particular conditions to be determined by a judge, is not an established practice in Libyan society.

In Egypt, women lost about 50 seats in a parliament composed of over 500 seats. Today, the Egyptian parliament includes only five women. The female quota, which reserved 10 percent of the seats for women, was abolished. In the Salafists’ electoral campaigns, pictures of female candidates were replaced with either pictures of a rose, of the candidate’s husband, or, in the better instances, the campaign’s slogan.

In Tunisia, which is considered a bastion of civil laws and women's rights in the region and held up as an example by regional female activists, some are calling for female circumcision on traditional religious and social grounds. Remarkably, this proposal was not put forth by obscure religious figures or marginal forces, but is being debated in prominent political and human rights circles. Regardless of whether that proposal is approved, the fact that national debate has sunk so low in a country like Tunisia is alarming.

Some might say that women's rights and freedoms were not guaranteed during the reigns of the previous regimes either. They could point to legal systems throughout most of the region that did not criminalize domestic violence or marital rape. They might say that there was no equality in employment, political participation or in other areas. But those deficiencies were characteristic of an era in which human rights and civil rights in general (for both men and women) were neither protected nor applied. Therefore, to adhere to this logic is to redefine injustice as justice! When a revolution calls for a democracy to replace a dictatorial regime, then individual and group rights should be enhanced, or at the very least, not regress! Democracy, by definition, does not distinguish between individuals on the basis of race, religion or sex. There is no doubt that the process of change is long and arduous, but the above examples are enough to make us question our support and enthusiasm for the revolutions. History has repeatedly shown that the fall of a tyrant does not automatically mean the rise of a democracy. There are many examples of this: Iran, Turkey and the recently fallen [regimes]. However, it is a battle still worth fighting.

The Arab Spring will not succeed in any country without the establishment of a democratic order where civil rights and human rights are the primary sources of legislation.

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Found in: women’s rights, women, virginity tests, tawakel karman, shari’a, rape, human rights, female genital mutilation, blue bra girl, arab spring, arab
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