Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

North African Women’s Movements After the Arab Spring

Women protest in the streets against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s proposal to reduce the minimum legal age for marriage below 18 years, in Cairo, Egypt, 18 March 2013. Photo Gary Calton /eyevine

Women’s rights movements largely thrived in North Africa prior to the Arab Spring: in Egypt (1920s), Morocco (1940s), Algeria (1970s), Tunisia (1980s) and Mauritania (1980s). These movements fought for authority in a space-based patriarchy and managed to penetrate the public spheres of power, especially civil society. Despite some setbacks, the movements managed to make significant educational, social, political and legal gains.

From the late 1970s onward, the success of the Iranian revolution (1979), the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) and the subsequent emergence of the United States as the sole superpower led to the rise of ‘political Islam’. A complex situation resulted in which women’s voices were categorized as ‘secular’ or ‘Islamic’. This raises the question: what has become of all this in the aftermath of the Arab Spring?

A Paradoxical Situation

Two major paradoxes have emerged since the 2011 uprisings. On the one hand, a spectacular street presence of women of all ages, ideologies, ethnicities and social statuses during the political mobilization phases of the uprisings (this has been well documented by all types of media); on the other hand, the exclusion of these women from decision-making positions after the uprisings. As mobilizers and political actors, women stunned the world by braving gunfire, successfully manipulating social media and actively pushing for democratic elections. Their image has been repeatedly used to provide a narrative for the uprisings.

Yet the outcome for women has been underwhelming: the governments that have since been elected had weak, if any, female representation. In Egypt, for example, women, who withstood army-sanctioned ‘virginity tests’, were absent from the constitutional committee appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Indeed, women won fewer than ten of the roughly 500 seats, making up only 2 per cent of the first post-Arab Spring parliament (compared with 12 per cent in the previous government). In the October 2011 elections in Tunisia, 49 women were elected to the Constituent Assembly – 22 per cent of the 217 seats. However, the political discourse seems to be regressing, as exemplified by the woman who was allegedly raped by policemen and was accused of public indecency when she filed a complaint. In Libya, which had not had a civil government in four decades, women were used as pawns in complex political games tainted by tribal and central power struggles. In Morocco, women won 67 of the 395 parliamentary seats (17 per cent), but only one woman was appointed in the elected government (compared with seven women in the previous government). In addition, women were excluded from transitional governing bodies, constituent assemblies and committees that drafted the new constitutions. Further, debates about the appropriateness of women as parliamentarians and heads of state increased public rhetoric about women’s proper place in the domestic sphere, strident campaigns by Islamists to roll back relatively progressive family law and, most worryingly, increased politically motivated violence against women.

At the same time, the political Islamization of the region is a fact (with the adjectives ‘moderate’ and ‘Salafist’ added to reflect the different degrees of Islamization). However, what most women’s rights advocates (scholars and activists) achieved through the decades that preceded the Arab Spring were also ‘Islamic’ gains: women’s rights advocates in the region fought to improve, not replace, sharia (Muslim) law and targeted patriarchy not Islam. More than that, many secular and Islamic feminists (scholars and activists) worked together and Islam had never been a problem as far as women’s rights advocates in the region were concerned.

Women’s Rights in the Maghreb

Despite the disappointing figures given above, when it comes to women’s rights, the Maghreb (North Africa) is different from the Mashriq (the Middle East). An important indicator of this is that since the Arab Spring, more women have been elected or appointed to parliaments in the Maghreb than in the Middle East. The main reason for this may be formulated in the following terms. As a social movement, the women’s rights movement ‘functions’ in the male-dominated public space and, hence, is bound to either clash or interact with three powerful sources of authority in this space: politics, economics and religion. In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, such as Yemen or Kuwait, women’s issues have never been crucial in the political games of the public sphere. In the Maghreb, especially Tunisia and Morocco, they are. Ever since their independence, the countries of North Africa have ‘used’ women’s rights as part and parcel of the state’s modernization agenda. In post-Arab Spring Tunisia, the relatively greater number of women in parliament was partly made possible by the 1956 Personal Status Code, which protects women’s rights. Indeed, in recent political campaigns, women’s NGOs used this Code extensively as a shield against extremism and a guarantee of women’s rights.

In Morocco, more women had access to the parliament because after the success of the One Million Signatures campaign to reform the Moudawana (Family Code) in early 1990s, women’s issues became part of the ideological wars that opposed secularists to Islamists. The fact that the king is the highest political and religious authority, and that the interests of the monarchy coincided with those of women in the face of rampant Islamism, facilitated the strategizing between the two and led to various reforms that helped to save Morocco from the upheaval and bloodshed experienced by many of its neighbours.

In Algeria, the ruling elite waited for 22 years before promulgating its first family law in 1984. This temporization was due to the conflict between feminists, who fought for more progressive laws, and the ruling elites, who were determined to preserve the patriarchal family as set out in the Maliki jurisprudence, one of the four schools of religious law within Sunni Islam.

In Libya, family law was associated with former leader Muammar Qaddafi and his Green Book. The regime enhanced women’s rights through progressive laws and restrictions on men seeking divorce or seeking a second spouse in a clear use of state feminism to reinforce the leader’s image in and outside the country.

In Mauritania, the 2001 Personal Status Code was based on a ‘respect’ of tradition and some tribal traditions, such as a woman’s right to divorce without her husband’s permission. The laws improved certain aspects of gender relations, such as the requirement for a woman to consent to marriage, but maintained other gender inequalities, such as the ability for a ‘tutor’ (usually a male relative) to marry off a woman under 18 if he determined it was in her interest. The word ‘interest’ was not defined and the silence of a minor was understood as consent.

In sum, family law in North Africa has historically functioned as a means of bringing religious law under control by centring it on the family. The nature of this process obviously depended on the nature of the ruling regime and the regime’s use of religion to serve its own ends. This created resistance which, enhanced by fast-moving technology, deeply transformed North Africa and resulted in the 2011 revolution.

Shifting Strategies

Another characteristic of the post-Arab Spring period is the dramatic shift in strategies employed by women’s rights movements. The five most notable are:

  • Highlighting women’s rights not as secondary but as a genuine prerequisite for democratic change.

  • Fighting the sidelining of gender equality as a human right in the implementation of the new constitutions. This means working towards the inclusion of gender equality in every democratization process and understanding that gender is not only a symptom but the backbone of every development strategy because it is the main engine of economic growth.

  • Pushing for more interaction between liberal/secular and Islamic feminists in the region, in spite of the fact that Islamic feminists work more from inside Islamic political parties; avoiding polarization and seeking a middle ground where democracy and liberalism are maintained.

  • Avoiding blaming religion and understanding that religion becomes very complex when mixed with politics in a region with high female illiteracy and a strong space-based patriarchy.

  • Using social media to foster grassroots movements and highlight political action.

Beginning of a Process

North Africa is at the beginning of a process, which goes beyond the political, by which democratization is becoming rooted in the region. This is why maintaining and improving women’s rights is crucial. Although it is true that the region is being Islamized, religious identity and faith are two different (and possibly opposed) concepts in politics. This is because the religious field in North Africa is becoming increasingly diversified, and thus less and less likely to be reconstructed as political ideology. As a result of this diversification, Islam is being deconstructed, with the aim not so much of secularizing society as distancing politics from religion and vice versa. Again, women’s rights are crucial in striking this balance.

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