Monday, June 4, 2012

Arab Women's Movements

How do we define women's movements? Does it mean any group founded by women, or that works for women, or most of whose members are women, or exclusively a group that aims to achieve women's rights? A leading scholar of women's movements, Maxine Molyneux, suggests " A women' movement does not have to have a single organizational expression, and may be characterized by a diversity of interests, forms and spatial location". Another definition from Wikipedia "refers to a series of campaigns fro reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, suffrage, sexual harassment and sexual violence. The movement's priorities vary among nations and communities"

When the discussion comes to Arab women's Movement, we face a critical problem that not many historians have worked on the Arab women's movements. A challenge was how to cover and represent the 22 Arab League states, spread over a vast stretch of North Africa and west Asia. In spite of their shared Arab language and culture, these countries are heterogeneous in many ways, marked by different population mixes (linguistics, sectarian, ethnic), by different histories of colonial domination, varied types of political\legal regimes, and current external relationships-differences that have influenced the way women's organizations in each have developed. This heterogeneity means that one country cannot be taken to represent others even if they are part of the same region or share the same level of economic development. Close neighbors may be highly dissimilar when it comes to the state of women's movements. Look at Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or Tunisia and Libya, or Lebanon and Syria. Thus, in this article, I will simplify the history of Arab Women's movement in three main phases without telling any chronicle, because it is different from one Arab country to another. 

History of the Arab women's movements covers three closely linked, complementary phases. Each Phase is important for an understanding of the women's cause as a movement seeks to enable women to claim their full and uncompromised right to integration within society. The first period is tied to trauma of imperialism and its impact on women, families and extended families. Women's associations were focused on charitable work. There were number of women's associations, especially in Egypt, and they were raising issues relating to women's inferior status. However, they did not get attention because they did not address certain issues instead of talking about women's inferiority in general. The second reason because during the time of Imperialism women and men were thinking it is not the time to talk about women right while their countries underwent the colonization. Imperialism, and the struggle against it, set back the liberation of women by dislocating national priorities. However, women themselves saw that the realization of their social rights as linked to future independent Arab states. In this context Arab women formed organizations to enhance women's participation in the battles for independence. Their organizations were unions strongly supported by the national and religious elite striving for independence. What is interesting here that the support they got from religious elite during the imperialism changed during the post-independence nation-states.

  The second phase concerns the building of the post-independence nation-state. The rise of Islamic movements (The Salafism).  They based their attacks on the idea that equality in the public life would by its nature, reduce men's opportunities in the job market and that the man was the master of the family, and the woman was his independent. Thus, the only natural place for a woman was the home. They argued that the role of women should be limited to caring for husbands and children. Here it is important to draw attention to a difference that distinguishes the Salafis from the school of the Muslims Brotherhood in terms of their proclaimed positions vis-a vis women. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, adopts a principle position in support of women's political rights. They have not, however dealt with ongoing reforms in the area of personal status, such as polygamy, the women's right to control over her own body and children and divorce. The Islamist discourse resonated with traditionalists in Arab society and gained ground with the middle class, whose hopes of reaping dividends from the various post-independence projects.  Women's associations in Egypt and the Tunisian declared that it had become necessary to restrict Islam to the realm of personal belief and spiritual values. Other women's associations in Jordan, Morocco, the occupied Palestinian territory and the Gulf States, however, adopted a modified position. They demanded that the door independent religious thinking  (Ijtihad) be opened on questions connected with women in the belief that enlightened readings of the Quranic verses would establish a new discourse on women nourished by the heritage.  The third phase relates to the emergence of a new women's consciousness whose strength is an extension of the female body itself and which derives its support from the international discourse on women's liberation empowerment. For instance, a group of women and men in KSA leaded by Manal al- Sharif started a campaign "Women 2Drive" which aimed to ask the Saudi authorities and the king to allow women to drive cars in KSA. Especially that in the Saudi legislations is not allowed for women to drive cars. Manal al-Sharif and her campaign got international solidarity, and Amnesty International has said to the Saudi authorities "must stop treating women as second-class citizens.

The political and social contexts directly influenced the quality of the demands put forward by the women's movements, how which by their nature reflect a tension between social circumstances and the movement's priorities at a given time. 

The NGOization of the Arab women's movements

It is important to notice these differences to help clarify the prevailing confusion between social movements and NGOs because in order to have weight or, in political terms, power, a social movements has to have a large popular base according to Tarrow, what constitutes social movements is that  " at their base are the social networks and cultural symbols through which social relations are organized. The denser the former and the more familiar the latter, the more likely movements are to spread and be sustained" (Tarrow 1944).
NGOization means is the spread of a different form of structure for women's activism, one which limits the participation of women at the local. NGOization also limits the struggle for national cause to projects' geared to priorities set by an international discourse without diversity, and fragment the accumulation of forces for social change. With NGOs the targeting policy is always limited, localized and implemented by professionals hired by the organizations to do the job which make it different from the mission based on the conviction and volunteerism of cadres in the grass- roots organizations. Their structure and methods do not help NGOs to act as a mobilizing, organizing formation when working for claims to rights or change, most NGOs do not in any case set organization or mobilization as a goal. In addition, NGO reliance on the use of media communication for advocating national issues can cross the red lines drawn by political authorities, leading to the punishment of individual leaders and pointing to the weaking effect of lack of a broad constituency. 

Finally, it was very difficult to find resources on the internet about the history of the Arab women's movements, and the worst to find resources each one is contradicting the other. I think there three main reasons behind this problem of not finding much resources about Arab women's movements. The first reason is the lack of documentation, so it is very difficult to know when women started seeking collectively for their rights with the society structure. Also, during the Imperialism women history was about women fighting alongside men for national demands and liberty. The second reasons, is NGOization the women movements, so whenever you try to find about women movement, mostly you will find information about NGO. As I explained before NGOization the women movements have many cons more than pros. However, I do not blame them for NGOizations the women's movements due to the lack of financial aid to support their movements, and the culture of volunteerism was not popular. Thus, it was justified for them to work for their causes under the umbrella of NGOs to get financial aid, and to hire cadre.
Besides, from my own perspective, Arab Women movements were not successful because as I explained in the above paragraphs the Imperialism and religious elite. Also I add to the list the absolute loyalty to the head of the state and due to the delay in beginning to educate girls, such as, in Saudi Arabia that it started girls' education in 1960. However, the development on the women movement is obvious lately, so we can see some successful women movements. For example, Kuwait's women won their long fight for suffrage and to run for office in 2005. Parliament voted to give women voting rights in May 2005 in a surprising vote only two weeks after it voted against allowing them to vote in local elections, It was believed to have been pushed by the prime minister, Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, now the Emir. The Parliament removed the word "men" from an article of voting law. Another example of successful Arab women movement is Anti-Virginity Test. This campaign leaded by Samira Ibrahim, and announced by Global Fund for Women as one of top 10 most successful women's movements in the world
Samira Ibrahim was arrested during the protests in Tahrir square during the revolution in Egypt. After being transferred to a military facility with other detained women were forced to strip their clothes and have their hymens checked. Afterwards, Samira took this case to the court, and she got support not just in Egypt, but in all over the world. 
As what   Ani Difranco said "I have something to prove, as long as I know there's something that needs improvement, and you know what every time I move, I make a woman's movement"