The uprisings sweeping the Arab world have toppled not only dictatorships. Gone too are the old stereotypes of Arab women as passive, voiceless victims. Over the past few months, the world has seen them marching in Tunisia, shouting slogans in Bahrain and Yemen, braving tear gas in Egypt and blogging and strategizing in cyberspace. Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, became known as the Leader of the Revolution after she posted an online video call to arms, telling young people to get out onto the streets and demand justice. In Libya, female lawyers were among the earliest anti-Gaddafi organizers in the revolutionary stronghold of Benghazi.
Arabs were bemused that the Western media was shocked shocked! to find women protesting alongside men. "There was this sense of surprise, that 'Oh, my god, women are actually participating!' " says Egyptian activist Hadil El-Khouly. "But of course women were there in Tahrir Square. I was there, because I'm Egyptian. Everyone was there. You really felt we were all one."
The glow of revolutionary dawn, sadly, sometimes doesn't last until noon. When Tunisian women's groups held a postrevolution rally in January to demand equality, thugs disrupted the gathering, yelling, "Women at home, in the kitchen!" And on March 8, a march in Cairo to commemorate International Women's Day ended in violence, with gangs of men groping protesters and telling them to go home. "It was a horrible irony that on International Women's Day, a march for women's rights could face that kind of egregious harassment in Cairo's Tahrir Square, a symbol of freedom," says Priyanka Motaparthy, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "It was an incredibly violent way of trying to scare [the women] out of the public space."
Women are good for revolutions, but historically, revolutions haven't been so good for women. In 1789, French women took to the streets to protest high bread prices and the excesses of the royal court at Versailles, and they helped topple the monarchy. So potent was the symbol of the tricoteuses the women who knitted while watching proceedings at the guillotine that Charles Dickens immortalized them by creating Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. Within a few years of the revolution, though, the revolutionary government had banned all women's political clubs.
In the Muslim world, women's rights have become a key symbol of a regime's political stripes. Promote women's freedom to study, work and travel freely, and you align yourself with modernizing forces; curtail it, and you placate conservatives. But when women identify with the forces of change, they are sometimes let down. In Iran, women came out in force to march against the Shah in 1979; Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini rewarded them by requiring that they wear the veil in government offices and by curbing their rights. And now, as Tunisians and Egyptians hammer out the nature of their nations' future, women are being required to fight for their rights for the second time this year. "There is no turning back," says Margot Badran, senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington and the author of Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. "The violence [against the March 8 protesters] has only strengthened resolve."
The Arab Spring's revolutions took the region's leaders by surprise. They succeeded at least in Tunisia and Egypt in no small measure because of a more diffuse, slow-burn shift under way in the previous generation: the gender revolution. Increasingly educated, organized and networked, Muslim women, using sources such as the Koran and international human-rights laws, have begun to question the prevailing political, social and religious status quo in the Middle East. Having started to challenge sexism and injustice at home and at the mosque, they were equipped to go out and protest the dictatorships.
What happens now? Women's participation during Tunisia's and Egypt's transition to democracy remains a crucial litmus test of the revolutions' seriousness of intent. Exclude women and the whole concept of sweeping away a privileged political caste crumbles. As Moroccan activist Saida Kouzzi observes, "If these countries continue to neglect the rights of the great majority of their citizens, then what good do these revolutions do?"