Nahla Abdo is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton Unversity in Ottawa. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host a live blog on March 8, 2011, to mark the centenary of International Women's Day.
To begin with, I would like to send my condolences to all the families who lost their daughters, mothers, sisters or other loved due to oppression, kidnapping, killings, torture in prison, and especially to Arab women who sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. This International Women’s Day could not have come in a better time for tens of millions of Arab women, especially, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
On March 8, these women, joined by women all over the world, will be celebrating their freedom from their autocratic rulers and oppressive regimes. They will be celebrating, for the first time after decades of oppression, the right to live in freedom, justice and dignity.
These celebrations have not been given to Arab women as a gift nor were they donated by the ‘liberal charitable democracies’ or the West. In fact, the latter has always denigrated Arabs and presented women as veiled, docile and submissive to their patriarchy and religion. These celebrations instead, are the product of the active role and strong will women demonstrate in their part in revolutions during the last two months or so.
In just about three weeks, Tunisian women along with their menfolk took to the streets and staged a revolution against their autocratic regime. They demanded the overthrow of the Tunisian regime and the deposition of their autocratic leader, former President Zine al-Abedine Ben-Ali.
Women’s willpower, perseverance, and determination to keep the revolution alive until their demands are met, has been accomplished. Women’s and men’s strong willpower proved to be much stronger than the oppressive regime that ruled over them with an iron hand. They succeeded in unseating Ben-Ali after 28 years, and changed their oppressive state.
This unprecedented moment in Arab history was not to stop in Tunisia. It is commonly known that the majority of the Arab population is made up of young women and men. Most of these young women and men are highly educated, skilled and talented but found themselves living under corrupt and autocratic rule, which deprived them their basic rights.
Throughout the Arab world, poverty has been widespread, and the majority of ordinary Arabs living on or under poverty line; the gap between the poor and the rich was only widening. While the corrupt ruling class was amassing wealth in its hands (especially the ruler and his family), ordinary people were struggling hard to put bread on the table, educate their children or providing them with a decent life.
On January 25, 2011, Egyptian young women and men continued the same chapter of history, they took to the streets in almost all Egyptian cities in a revolution which would change the face of Egypt after almost 30 years of the corrupt and autocratic rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. Millions of women and men, young, old, and children also joined this revolution.
Not unlike the case of Tunisia, in Egypt as well women’s (and men’s) resolve to topple the regime and oust Mubarak was unchallengeable. What is historically specific about the Egyptian case is that this is the largest country in the Arab world with a population of over 84 million people and played a strong role in regional and world politics.
The overwhelming majority of these people, however have for decades, been living under emergency laws, prevented from voicing their constantly worsening conditions, precluded from forming their independent political parties and like their Tunisian folks, have seen their basic human rights trampled upon by the regime.
Around February 10, 2011, the young women and men in Libya joined Arab revolutionary history-in-the-making. They took to the streets and declared a revolution against the regime and its head which – as these words are being written – has shown to be not only autocratic, but despotic as well.
As in the previous two cases, Libyan women and men revolted, demanding the change of the regime and the ousting of President Muammar Gaddafi.
While the success of this revolution is certain, the despotic nature of Gaddafi and his followers is making the revolutionary process relatively slow.
Revolutions are not without sacrifices
These revolutions have all been conducted in the most gracious, civilized and peaceful manner. “Silmiyyah” (Arabic for peaceful) has been the shared/common slogan used by all revolutionaries in the three countries.
The main slogan also used in all these revolutions has been: “al-Sha’ab Yoreed Isqat al-Nizam” (Arabic for the people want to change the regime). Regardless of the wants and ambitions of the people, violence, with varying degrees, was used by these truncated regimes, especially when these autocratic leaders began to feel the pressure, sense of eminent loss, and realize they were losing, and their end was approaching.
Although Mubarak deployed “his” thugs from among his police force and security, most tragically has been the state/regime violence used by Gaddafi against the Libyan people.
In the latter case, lethal weapons have been used against civilians: live bullets, shells, shooting from tanks and mercenaries with military training have attacked and killed an unknown number of Libyan demonstrators.
To all the women and men who were killed in attacks – became identified as martyrs in Arabic - while defending their right to live in freedom, dignity and as decent human beings, I say: your deeds will not fall on deaf ears, through your revolution you paved the way for millions other women, both in the Arab world as well as all over the world to follow.
Arab women defy the West and its hypocrisy
It goes without saying that the revolutionary spirit and action undertaken by Arab women has defied their apriori/constructed image by the West.
Through their active participation in these revolutions, women of different social status (poor and middle class, peasants and workers) and of different religions (Muslims and Christians) wanted and demanded a true democracy accountable to them, to their needs and to their aspirations.
It is this strong willpower which took the west by surprise, as it challenged its perceived image of these women.
These revolutionary times in the Arab world have their implications not only on the region but also on the whole world, especially the West. One only needs to remember that the three autocratic rulers were among the best allies of the West and especially, the U.S.
Mubarak was their “Man of Peace in the Middle East”, as he mediated negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet, as far as his people, the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab people were concerned, Mubarak’s mediatory role – also proven by the recent release of the Palestine Papers - was anything but acting on behalf of the U.S and serving the interests of Israel. This “Peace” was not to be translated or designed for the benefit of his people or the Palestinians.
Ben Ali was also heavily protected by the U.S. and the West as he prevented any political movement from expressing its voice and dealt with the religious parties with an iron hand. For the West, especially the U.S., Ben Ali was just another policeman in the North African part of the Arab world.
The deal with Gaddafi was not very different either. By using his country’s wealth and oil, changing his garment from a military uniform to designer ropes, Gaddafi was able to mollify the West after long-lasting sanctions imposed against him.
In fact, a true democracy in the Arab world was not exactly what the West, especially the U.S. and Israel wished for these people. The West never trusted that Arab women and men, like all people, are eager to live without oppression, yearn for justice, want to live in dignity and build their own democracy.
In all of the Arab revolutions, both local and Western leaders used notions such as “Islamic extremism”, “Islamicists”, and “religious fanaticism” as a card to warn against replacing existing regimes with religious fundamentalism.
This despite the fact that in all of these revolutions, and quite from the beginning, the main slogan of the youth who initiated all these events has been: this struggle is for achieving a dignified life, riddance of oppression, justice and the establishment of the rules of true and inclusive democracy.
Despite this, we find the West, especially the U.S, but also the rest of the Arab autocratic regimes expressing silence and reluctance at the start of these events.
It is only after days of women and men demonstrating their resolve and will-power to continue, the West begins to change its tone asking the regimes for “restraint and reform”.
Without any exception, in all these revolutions, Western expressions of dissatisfaction or condemnation of violence, voicing of objection to the regimes’ deeds - and a lukewarm one in that – comes only when the revolutionaries begin to achieve their demands and the regimes begin to crumble.
These new times, this new chapter in Arab history, while it is written with letters of blood shed by women and men, will always be a testimony to Arab women’s will power, their strong agency, resolve and determination to lead their lives free and without oppression.