Women may be driving revolution in the Arab world

The mass demonstrations in Egypt, which will most likely result in the overthrow of U.S. backed President Mubarak, and the recent revolution in Tunisia, which overthrew U.S. backed President Ben Ali suggest that it’s time to reconsider our one size fits all view of the Arab world. The push for democracy that seems, to us, to have come out of nowhere, has its origins in a reaction to Western domination and widespread government corruption. But, according to Gema Martin-Muñoz, professor of Sociology at Madrid’s Autonomous University, these revolutions also reflect deep shifts and ongoing changes in the Arab and Islamic cultures themselves.

What we mostly see on our TV are stereotyped portrayals of rigid, fundamentalist societies resistant to change. But, according to Martin-Muñoz, who studies Arab and Islamic cultures,

this image is nearly the opposite of reality in Arab societies, where enormous dynamism is opening doors to many types of change, albeit at different speeds and in complex, contradictory ways—particularly when change from below is held back from above.

Consider Arab women. The predominant image is of a passive, exotic, and veiled victim-woman who reacts to events instead of actively participating in them. She is an impersonal object of communal stereotypes that sustain cultural prejudices.

In fact, Arab societies are engaged in a process of immense and irreversible change in which women are playing a crucial role. During the last half-century, intense urbanization and feminization of the workforce in all Arab countries has propelled women into the public arena on a massive scale.

In a recent article at Project-Syndicate.org, “The Arab World’s Silent Feminist Revolution,” Martin-Muñoz points to several signs of significant change for Arab women.

  • Differences in levels of education between boys and girls are lessening, and in some Arab countries, more girls than boys are in secondary and higher education. Parents want education for their daughters as well as their sons
  • Surveys are finding that young men and women want to study and have a job before they marry. They also want to choose their partner.
  • The traditional model of the Arab family is in flux. Because young people are waiting to marry, and the use of birth control is increasing, family size is getting smaller especially in the North African countries but also throughout the Arab world. This trend is found in both urban and rural areas.

According to Martin-Muñoz, these societal changes are causing a “redistribution of power” between old and young, and between men and women resulting in a slow but steady weakening of patriarchy, as the family shifts from traditional extended families to more Western style nuclear families.

She hastens to add that these changes are uneven and gradual, and the result of compromises and adjustments with traditional patriarchal laws and society. Traditional repression of women exists alongside women taking new roles and finding new freedoms. Yet, instead of these changes at the cultural level, what is most reported on in the West are governments which resist bringing social changes into their laws.

They fear, with reason, that extending freedoms and developing individual autonomy within the family—and so weakening patriarchal authority—could lead to a questioning in the public arena of the ideological basis of state power.

Governments invoke religious norms and tradition in order to legitimize the continuation of patriarchal rule and their political power that rests on it. But Arab political authorities, and the Arab people themselves, are having to confront the contradictions between the traditional authoritarian patriarchal model and the ongoing transformation occurring in the everyday lives of women.

Martin-Muñoz says that the Western view of Arab societies promotes,

the belief that Islam confines all Arab women in the same way, when in reality they experience very different conditions. This prevents many from seeing, much less evaluating, the deep changes taking place in Arab societies—and how women are driving those changes forward.

Brian Whittaker, writing about Arab society over a year ago for the Guardian, pointed to changes in the traditional patriarchal family structure as key to political change.

the Arab family as traditionally conceived— patriarchal and authoritarian, suppressing individuality and imposing conformity, protecting its members so long as they comply with its wishes—is a microcosm of the Arab state.

Changing the power structures within families (and in many parts of the Arab world this is already happening) will also gradually change the way people view other power structures that replicate those of the traditional family, whether in schools and universities, the workplace, or in government. This is where women come in. In an Arab context, demanding the same rights as men is a first step towards change. Asserting their rights doesn’t mean that all women have to be activists for feminism. Even something as simple as going out to work—if enough [women] do it— can start to make a difference.

Feminist gains could be wiped out in post revolutionary Tunisia, where before his ouster, exiled President Bin Ali initiated feminist reform. It’s possible that Islamic fundamentalist forces could gain power in both Tunisia and Egypt, which would signal a return to oppressive conditions for women. Yet, the recent revolutions in those countries were not motivated by a desire for a return to religious fundamentalism, but rather by a desire for release from repressive government, political corruption, and deteriorating economic conditions. It seems unlikely that the young Arab men and women, who organized these revolutions on Facebook and Twitter, would choose a new government modeled on the authoritarian patriarchal world they are trying to escape.