Sunday, June 26, 2011

Women and the Awakening

Farzaneh Journal of Women's Studies

The ongoing awakening of the Middle East and North African societies which led to the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolution is a clear example of a dynamic social and political movement inspired by not only democratic values and the aspiration for freedom but also by Islamic mores and values.  Recent developments in Yemen, Bahrain and even Jordan , Morocco and Syria all point to the contagious nature of the message and the repressive temperament of the regimes still  clinging to power.  The role of women in inspiring and promoting these mass movements has been clearly demonstrated in  news reports and footage emanating from these events, in spite of heavy restrictions and obstacles for journalists and reporters.  The most intriguing aspect of these developments is considered to be the unpredictable nature and chain reactions involved.  
In the academia,  although a number of recent studies of movements in the Middle East have attempted to depict a realistic vision and have articulated criticisms of the clash of modernity and tradition and attempted to move beyond cultural based explanations of movements (El Mahdi 2009: 1011-1039; Naghib 2009: 155-174; Dabashi; 2008; Bayat 2005: 891-908; Abdelrahman: 2004; Wiktorwitz: 2004; Hafez: 2001) yet none have even come close to predicting  the events of 2011.   Some scholars have mentioned the emerging role of Muslim women in these societies but none have anticipated that they would take a leading role in the transformation of their societies to democracy and the realization of a modern Islamic version for the woman's  role and status.
For long there had been reports on the growing trends of Islamization in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries contrary to secular and even non-Islamic   government   policies. These trends were hallmarked by a growing appeal for the hijab or Islamic covering, particularly in the academic sphere as well as an increasingly larger population displaying their Islamic loyalty in the form of attending group prayers and demanding more mosques and prayer rooms in public areas.  This trend which was  overlooked by government politicians  in Egypt nor was it understood by researchers who studied these societies.  Many scholars who  have produced   theories which posit progressive movements as purely Western and secular ,   have now realized that they carry a blind spot regarding movements in the Middle East. These recent  events while not totally inspired by religious and Islamic values like what happened in  the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978,  usually enjoyed a strong Islamic backing from both fundamentalist and progressive outlooks.
 In reality, women and men in these societies aspire to liberate their countries from the humiliating policies of corrupt dictators supported by foreign , mostly Western powers. They see Islam as a progressive and liberating force and wish to rebuild their societies on values such as justice, peace and progress for all. The vanguard role of women in the conception and promotion  of these movements, as seen in news reports, has been commented and reviewed in many news analysis but very little has yet emerged in the academic sphere.  The fact that women in Egypt , Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria  took part in the demonstrations which led to violence due to repressive government policies and were injured and even martyred, is an important hallmark which will enable women in these societies to play an instrumental role in the making of new institutions and reforming the existing political structures. It is also an important indication of the support that Islamic leaders have provided despite harsh government repression for women's participation.  Footage from many cities indicated that young women and girls also played an important role in this struggle  and considering the vulnerability of this age group and the social complications associated with their political activism, many observers consider this matter as a turning point for these Muslim communities.

The tragedy of Libya however, is another story where the role of women cannot be overlooked in both parties. While the Qaddafi regime claims to support the advancement of women, many young women from various walks of life took part in demonstrations against the regime. Although as the violence escalated and led to street clashes and a form of civil war emerged after Western allies began aerial attacks, the presence of women in the streets diminished owing probably to the high level of violence and intimidation on behalf of the government militia.
In conclusion, as events unfold and countries of the region move towards an awakening and socio-political transformation,  the lessons and achievements of other Islamic societies should be conveyed so that a constructive exchange of experience occurs. Academic centers need to take the lead in providing a sound and objective analysis for each society  enabling an insight into the rapid transformations of our days.  In the absence of foreign interference there is much hope for a new road map for the region, in which women would revive their identity and advance to realize their God given potentials.

Farzaneh Journal of Women's Studies Vol 17 is now published. ( 

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