‘The solution to women’s issues can only be achieved in a free and democratic society in which human energy is liberated, the energy of both women and men together. Our civilization is called human civilization and is not attributed only to men or women.’
(Yemeni political activist and Nobel Peace Prize Recipient, Tawakkol Karman, 2011)
When protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa people around the world were told this is the ‘Arab Spring’: the re/generation of democracy in the ‘Arab World’. But as time has passed and conflict and chaos has ensued, one thing has become clear – the journey towards change in many Arab Spring countries will be long and arduous.
For women’s rights advocates, the question now is what position women will take in this highly politicised battleground? Can there be an Arab Spring without the ‘flower of Women’s rights’? (Dalia Ziada, executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies).
For many women, regime change was only the beginning of a long fight for freedom and equality. Since the Arab Spring began women have been among the crowds of protestors and demonstrators. They have been involved in various campaigns – everything from smuggling munitions and caring for the wounded (Isobel Coleman).
Social commentator Barbara Slavin says that in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, women are fighting ‘deep-seated conservative cultural norms and efforts by newly empowered Islamic parties to deprive them of the rights granted to them by prior autocratic regimes’. Isobel Coleman says that in Tunisia, women activists have formed multiple groups, one of which is called the October 24 Front. This group was formed to defend women’s rights after an Islamists electoral victory in the region. ‘We want a constitution that respects women’s rights and doesn’t roll back the advances we’ve made,’ said one Tunisian protester.
Women have also organised online, reaching out by voicing their everyday challenges. The weblog A Tunisian Girl is written by Lina Ben Mhenni – an assistant language professor at the University of Tunis. Ben Mhenni engages with debates about freedom of speech, human rights, protest, revolution, state oppression and death. What Ben Mhenni writes provides a glimpse into her life as a young woman in Tunisia and the ways in which she experienced the revolution – not on a grand global scale, but through daily challenges like the right to speak openly and freely. In 2011 she wrote:
‘I have the impression that the world does not care about what is going on in Tunisia anymore, many events are happening simultaneously around the globe. This is why I am seizing this opportunity to say that there are no concrete changes in Tunisia. The people are still suffering; they are the victims of the counter-revolution forces. Freedom and freedom of speech are just myths for us. We are not enjoying freedom of speech as the people outside Tunisia think’.
Many seek to understand the consequences and outcomes of the Arab Spring movements and make generalisations about the future for those men and women involved. At the moment we have more questions than answers.
Ben Mhenni’s blog gives voice to her encounters and experiences and provides a certain type of access to women’s lives in countries around the world. From the other side of the screen we can engage with her life and better understand some of the local and embodied repercussions of a global struggle.