By Soumaya Ghannoushi
Saida Sadouni does not conform to the typical image of an Arab revolutionary. But this 77-year-old camped out in the bitter Tunisian cold for more than two weeks in front of the prime minister’s headquarters, leading the historic Kasbah picket that succeeded in forcing Mohamed Ghannouchi’s interim government out of office. “I have resisted French occupation. I have resisted the dictatorships of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. I will not rest until our revolution meets its goals,” she told the thousands of fellow protesters who joined her. She is today widely hailed as the mother of Tunisia’s revolution, a living record of her country’s modern history and its struggle for emancipation.
Sadouni is one of many Arab women from older generations who have joined the revolutions in their countries after decades of political activism. But most women activists today tend to be in their 20s and 30s, highly politicised yet unaffiliated to any organised parties — young women such as Asma Mahfoudh, of Egypt’s April 6 movement.
This 26-year-old’s interests had until recently been no different from those of any woman of her age. While surfing the net in 2008 she stumbled on calls for a general strike to demand an end to government corruption. This initial encounter with protest “marked the beginning of a new chapter” in her life, as she puts it. Ever since, she has been an avid campaigner for change, joining a struggle that culminated in the ousting of President Mubarak.
Even in ultra-conservative Yemen, demonstrations against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been led by a young charismatic woman, Tawakul Karman. She has campaigned since 2007 demanding political reform. When she was arrested in January, the authorities were forced to release her following a wave of angry protests in Sana’a. What has inspired these women and thrust them into the heart of protest is the yearning for change and political freedom that is sweeping across the region.
The Arab revolutions are not only shaking the structure of despotism to the core, they are shattering many decades-long myths. Foremost among these is the perception of the Arab woman as powerless and enslaved, forced into a cage of silence and invisibility by her jailer society. That is not the type of woman that has emerged out of Tunisia and Egypt in the last few weeks.
Not only did women participate in the protest movements raging in those countries, they have assumed leadership roles there. The virtual and real battlefields have been incubators of female leadership. Arab women have been proving themselves through continuous action on the ground, rather than in endless polemics behind closed doors.
These revolutions have been characterised by the open politics of the street, through which leaders have been tested, matured and approved. The movements have grown from the bottom, unrestricted by party hierarchy, age or outdated gender roles. The open parliaments of Kasbah and Tahrir Square brought everyone closer together, promoting collective identity over divisions of class, ideology, gender, religion and sect.
Another stereotype being dismantled is the association of the Islamic headscarf with passivity, submissiveness and segregation. Many Arab women activists choose to wear the hijab. Yet they are no less confident than their unveiled sisters.
This new model of homegrown women leaders represents a challenge to two narratives. The one which is dominant in conservative Muslim circles sentences women to a life of childbearing and rearing, lived out in the narrow confines of their homes at the mercy of fathers, brothers and husbands. It revolves around notions of sexual purity and family honour. The other is espoused by Euro-American neoliberals, who view Arab and Muslim women through the narrow prism of the Taliban model: miserable objects of pity in need of their benevolent intervention.
Source: The Guardian