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New Texts Out Now: Andrea Khalil, Gender, Women, and the Arab Spring

[Cover of Andrea Khalil, [Cover of Andrea Khalil, "Gender, Women, and the Arab Spring"]

Andrea Khalil, editor, Gender, Women, and the Arab Spring. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

[Editors’ Note: This book was originally published as a special issue of The Journal of North African Studies 19.2 (2014). To mark the publication of this special issue as a book, we are reprinting a NEWTON piece written by the editor, Andrea Khalil, in May 2014.]

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this special issue? 

Andrea Khalil (AK): During my fieldwork in Tunisia (2011-13) working on a book, I was sensitized to the profound problems that women in Tunisia were facing since the Revolution, and more generally, the urgency to address gender issues and activism in the new context. The book I was working on at that time was not specifically about gender dynamics, but I wound up conducting a lot of interviews with women and following gender-related debates going on in Tunisia at the time. There was a clear need to focus on women and gender, not just because of the renewed debates that came up when Ennahdha won the elections, but also because of the proliferation of gender-based attacks and incidences of violence against women that were occurring. These acts of violence were sometimes going unpunished by the Tunisian state, as was happening in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and other places as well.

It seemed that it would be interesting to gather a collection of writing by women from North Africa to reflect on the situation of women, women’s rights, and the changing nature of gender activism since the Tunisian revolution. The debates were changing from a state-feminism of institutionally-driven and defined rights for women, which actually excluded the majority of women, to an activist-driven notion of human rights that included a broader range of women. I wanted to include some activists in the volume, and ultimately succeeded in including a couple of non-academic experts on women's rights from the region. All of the contributors are women, not intentionally, and are from North Africa or involved in North African gender rights. It was not intended to be a women-only volume, but that's how it worked out after the peer review process.

The collapse of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, which excluded most people from politics, has brought a new sense of inclusion and agency, which renewed hopes for gender equality. Unfortunately, this optimism was accompanied by gender-based violence against women across the region and a persistent marginalization of poor women. Many of the contributors comment on sexual and gender-based violence, providing a theoretical analysis of the situation.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does this special issue address?

AK: The literature of gender studies in the Middle East and North Africa is the main theoretical source for the authors of the volume. But each contributor has her own point of entry into the question of gender dynamics since the Arab Spring. In terms of academic discipline, the volume is interdisciplinary. Each author presents the changing terms of the gender debate within her own field of interest and specialization. Gender rights and struggles clearly cannot be delimited to a specific discipline, and I wanted the volume to reflect that diversity of dimensions. I included some institutional actors who were former Ministers of Women's Affairs (Lilia Labidi and Boutheina Cheriet), as well as young activists in the recent struggles for women's rights since the revolutions (Zahra Langhi and Maya Morsy), and also academics who have been studying gender in the region for some time (Mounira Charrad and Sherine Hafez).

This diversity is representative, I believe, of the combination of energies that are contributing to the changing ideas about gender and women in North Africa. Some examples of the different topics are: political economy in Morocco (Samia Errazzouki); artistic expression in Tunisia (Lilia Labidi); nationalist and Islamist discourse and gender in Algeria (Boutheina Cheriet); resistance to sexual harassment and cyberactivism (Loubna Hanna-Skalli); activism and restoration during revolution (myself); legal reform and international treaties in Egypt (Maya Morsy); and the “equality” versus “complimentary” debate and the Tunisian Constitution (Charrad and Zarrugh). Valentine Moghadam's international gender rights perspective nicely rounds out the issue with her astute foreword. 

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

AK: While I have been involved in fieldwork in North Africa since the late nineties, this is my first project that is directly about gender. Gender theory has often been in the background of my previous work on literature and film in North Africa, whereas in this volume it is the main focus. I made gender the main concern because of the urgency of the question in North Africa in the time during and after the revolution in 2011. In my first book, The Arab Avant-Garde, gender is part of a discussion of North African experimental literature and film, but the book did not foreground gender as its primary category of analysis. In that book, identity politics was considered within the framework of formal experimentalism in art, literature, and film as a way of breaking away from postcolonial cultural identity. My edited volume on film contains articles on North African cinema, some of which focused on gender, namely my article on Merzak Allouache and another article on Tunisian cinema.

J: Who do you hope will read this special issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AK: I hope students, specialists, and activists alike will read and enjoy the issue, which is now going to be published as a book. For students, there is always more to learn about women in this part of the world, and students can gain from these, and others’, research papers. I hope that the ideas brought forward in this volume will raise awareness for those who are not knowledgeable about the difficult situation of women in North Africa. For specialists and activists, I hope that the volume makes an intelligent contribution to the discussion and that it pushes the conversation forward.  

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AK: My book Crowds and Politics in North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya (Routledge, 2014) was published in late March 2014. This is the book I was researching when I first thought of the "Women, Gender, and the Arab Spring" volume. The book is a study of crowds, mostly politically-oriented crowds, and the field work was done in Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya during the 2011-2013 period. I first conceived the idea for a book on crowds in North Africa in 2010, but then the book widened in scope after the events in Tunisia in mid-December of that year. The book begins with an in-depth theoretical chapter that surveys and engages with historical crowd theory, which is mostly based on European crowds, as well as contemporary notions of crowds, which in some cases relate to the Arab world. It is not a political science book, but it does look at power politics of collective subjectivity and formation into groups. The book's thesis takes to task predominant crowd theory and questions received ideas about “mob psychology” that remain prevalent, especially with regards to Arab and Muslim-dominant countries.

J: How do you see this special issue as intervening in the ongoing discourse regarding the Arab Uprisings?

AK: I hope that issues of gender-justice will become a serious theoretical question within the “Arab Spring” field of research and discussion. Gender equity has not been high on the list of priorities in the post-revolutionary transition processes. Politics and persistent economic problems are taking the front seat. Women issues continue to be sidelined in politics, because after the revolution there were a lot of hopes for change, in Tunisia at least, and women are considered competitors and rivals in the newly opened political field.

Excerpts from Women, Gender and the Arab Spring

From Andrea Khalil, Editor’s Preface, “Gender Paradoxes of the Arab Spring”

In the context of the Arab Spring, popular pressures have been applied to the new governments by a wide range of groups of women whose opinions are redefining how constitutional and legal language treats gender in newly debated definitions of national identity. This shift in the women's rights question from state-defined action to atomized forms of cyber activism and street action is characteristic of the broader shifts in North African popular politics that culminated in the Arab Spring. Politics is no longer controlled by a single party, set of state actors or a by a single man. Rather, it has increasingly taken the form of popular “activisms,” rejecting state-imposed binaries such as state/society in favor of non-institutional forms of political intervention and contestation. The calls for gender dignity and justice, in this new period, echoes the style, media and dynamics of Arab Spring politics more broadly.

The contributors to this volume concur about those basic assertions. However, there is diversity in the contributors' approaches to the question of gender politics. Some are academics and teachers, namely Sherine Hafez, Mounira Charrad, Amina Zarrugh, Loubna Hanna Skalli, and Samia Errazzouki. Others, however, are researchers who devote their professional lives to the politics of gender activism. Two of these gender activists have worked within the state institutions; Boutheina Cheriet and Lilia Labidi are both former Ministers of Women's Affairs (Algeria and Tunisia, respectively) in addition to being academics. Two other gender activists have worked for gender equity in non-governmental organizations. Maya Morsy, holder of an advanced academic degree, is a non-governmental gender activist, serving as the Gender Practice Team Leader of the United Nations Development Program in Cairo. Zahraʾ Langhi is the co-founder of the Libyan Women's Platform for Peace (LWPP) and led the LWPP's lobbying for the “zipper list”, (alternation of men and women in political parties) to be instituted in Libyan electoral law. She also coordinated the first post-revolution national security meetings that engaged senior leaders of militias, intelligence officials, women and youth activists in Libya.

These “governmental” and non-governmental gender activists have been included in this volume as a result of the clear impact (if not unqualified success) of gender activism on the struggles for gender equality. In her Foreword to this volume, Valentine Moghadam notes the “legal and policy reforms that have been achieved over the years as a result of women's rights activism.” Indeed, a critical part of how theory needs to be recalibrated in the wake of the Arab Spring is the consistency with which we integrate gender activists' work and their empirical findings into a “scholarly” discussion. The work of North African gender activists is not a raw material to be used to produce discursive frameworks constructed elsewhere, in geo-politically dominant zones, but as inherently significant contributions. The interactions in the real world between intellectual work and gender activism are reproduced in this volume via the textual interactions between scholarly and activist discourses. The scope of the contributions ranges from theoretical considerations on how the female body has been a site of governmental and state power to more empirical case studies of the struggles for gender-sensitive legislation waged in the transitional period. The interaction between theory and empirical studies in this collection is reflective of the way in which the struggle for gender equality has been moving forward. Indeed, within each article there is an alternating focus between the theoretical approach to the study of gender in Muslim-dominant societies and the need to pinpoint particular cases of women who have triggered widespread social movements, and been targets of state, gender-based violence. Theoretical considerations are dependent on the fleshing out of empirical changes and events. This volume reflects that dialectic.

From Valentine M. Moghadam’s foreword, “Modernizing Women and Democratization after the Arab Spring”

The Algerian women's movement has endured—but stood against—patriarchal laws and norms and Islamist terrorism, and it helped to build the remarkable Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité, constituted by women's rights advocates from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In previous work I have examined three waves of Algerian women's collective action since the 1980s: against the conservative family code in the immediate post-Boumediènne period, against the Islamist movement and the terrorism of the 1990s, and for gender justice in the new century. Algerian feminist groups have worked with each other, with human rights groups and the country's main trade union, and with partners in the Maghreb region to achieve policy and legal reforms, including amendments to the family law in 2005, and a law against sexual harassment. Most recently, as mentioned above, they have achieved one of the highest rates of female parliamentary participation in the world. What can also be significant is the constitutional revision process, led by a commission appointed by the president, which has been ongoing since April 2011. At the time of writing, the outcome or details of amendments have not been public, but the women's rights groups are certainly monitoring the process.

The reform of Morocco's highly patriarchal family law and its replacement in 2004 with a more egalitarian set of laws and norms for marital life and family affairs was the end result of more than a decade of women's rights coalition-building, advocacy, and lobbying, and it paralleled a period of political liberalization in the late 1990s. Introduction of the new family code was part of a broader wave of reforms within the country, including changes to the labor code to introduce the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace (2004), to the penal code to criminalize spousal violence, to the nationality code (2007) to give women and men equal rights to transmit nationality to their children as required by Article 9 of the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and to the electoral code, which introduced a “national list” that reserved thirty parliamentary seats for women (2002). Women's rights—and women's rights activism—played a key role in the trend towards democratic social change.

In Tunisia, the women's rights organizations—long active in civil society even under authoritarian rule—mobilized immediately after the collapse of the Ben Ali government to ensure a democratic transition with women. Fearing that the “Dignity Revolution” in which they had taken part would come to favor Ennahdha—the Islamic party that had been banned since the early 1990s—and recalling Ennahdha's regressive stance on women's issues in the past, Tunisian feminists staged a protest on the eve of leader Ghannouchi's return from exile in January 2011. Several other rallies followed throughout the year, with participation also by several members of the provisional government, which was preparing for elections for a constituent assembly. (Lilia Labidi 2014, member of the provisional government as Minister for Women's Affairs, is a contributor to this volume.) After Ennahdha won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition government, feminists remained vigilant. When Islamists within the constituent assembly sought to replace the term “equality” with words akin to complementarity or partnership, women's rights activists and their male supporters in the secular and left-wing parties took to the streets and the domestic and international media in protest. The constituent assembly retained the term equality. In this example, Tunisian women were adamant that the fledgling democracy would not be reduced to a male-dominated political system, and that women's full and equal rights of citizenship had to be at the core of the new polity (for details, see papers by Mounira Charrad and Amina Zarrugh 2014; Andrea Khalil 2014; Lilia Labidi 2014).

Contrary to the proponents of MENA exceptionalism, therefore, the Arab Spring revealed the democratic aspirations of ordinary citizens, most notably among the region's women's rights associations, human rights groups, trade unions, and left-wing parties. But these aspirations were, in certain cases in the region, undermined by the military or militia groups, or by international intervention that upset the fragile balance of power, or by the legacy of weak institutions and norms. Thus Egypt's democratization stalled, because of the power of the military and its intervention in the political process, because the secular opposition lacked unity and a program of action (certainly when compared with the Muslim Brotherhood), and because concepts of the rights of women and religious minorities never took hold in Egypt. Libya cannot be said to have embarked on democratization, as it lacks a centralized government with control over the military and the capacity to carry out citizen expectations of security, human rights, and public services. In a political environment notable for its rival armed militias, Libyan women's participation and rights cannot be realized, much less form the basis of a democratizing process.

The record of the countries that embarked on the so-called third wave of democratization—from Portugal in 1974 to South Africa in 1990—shows that democratization can be launched and proceed in a variety of ways. It can occur through abrupt regime change caused by mass social protests followed by a constitution-writing process, political party formation and participation, and regular elections, or through a more incremental process of legal and policy reform brought about by significant social changes, including advocacy and activism for women's equality, ethnic rights, or labour rights; or through militant or non-violent collective action leading to negotiations and ‘pacts’ among political parties and movement leaders that represent diverse constituencies among the citizenry. In all cases, women have a stake in the type of democracy that ensues. Because they tend to be major contributors to, and participants in, the formation of civil society and the new democracy movements, women see a democratic polity as both a desirable alternative to authoritarianism and a pathway to their own equality and rights. Whether or not a women-friendly democracy takes hold depends on a number of factors: the institutional and normative legacy of the past, the role, visibility, and influence of women's rights organizations before and during the transition, and the nature of the new government and its capacity for a rights-based economic and political system.

In recent work I have drawn attention to the democratic and modernizing nature of women's movements and to the positive relationship between women's movements, participation and rights, and the building of democratic cultures and polities (Moghadam 2013b). Evidence from Latin America, South Africa, the Philippines, and Northern Ireland shows that women's participation was a key element in the successful transitions, that outcomes could be advantageous to women's interests, and that women's political participation reflects and reinforces democracy-building. But democracy has risks and perils, too. Feminist scholars have discussed what they call the ‘democracy paradox’ or the gender-based democracy deficit. Here, marginalization of women from the political process and dangers to the objective of sex equality can occur when the opening up of political space leads to the prominence of conservative forces, or when the new political environment is one that rejects everything from the past, including policies for gender or social equality. Examples are Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, Algeria and the elections that brought about an Islamist party (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS) in 1990/91, and Iraq and the Palestine Authority, where elections in early 2006 did not bring to power governments committed to citizens' or women's rights. Democracy is assumed by many scholars and political commentators to be a superior form of polity, but the quality of democracy depends on its capacity for inclusion and its ability to adopt policies for substantive equality as well as constitutional guarantees of formal equality.

In the Arab region, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia appear to be the most promising of the countries that launched or were affected by the Arab Spring. The women's rights groups have the requisite mobilizing power to influence the political elites. Along with a number of other civil society organizations and political parties, they have the civic skills necessary to build and sustain a democratic culture, and they have demonstrated a determination to defend and expand the scope of women's rights towards the acquisition of full and equal citizenship. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, the type of democracy that appears to be preferred in the region is, at the very least, a social democracy, premised on notions of social rights and economic citizenship. This calls for more analysis and advocacy work on the part of the feminist organizations, and of course more governmental investments in health, education, decent jobs and wages, and social provisioning (see also Errazzouki's 2014 forceful defense of Morocco's working class women in this volume).

If the long-standing exclusion of women from political processes and decision-making in the Arab region is a key factor in explaining why the region was a laggard, compared with other regions, in democratization's third wave, then women's participation and rights could not only speed up the democratic transition in the region but also enhance its quality. At the same time, the region's “modernizing women” need to be mindful of the problems, needs, and aspirations of working-class and low-income women, given that the mass social protests in MENA were as much a call for social justice as for civil and political rights. The future of democracy in North Africa in particular—where prospects are strongest—will depend in great measure on the institutionalization of social rights and gender equality across class, ethnic, and religious divides.

[Excerpted from Gender, Women, and the Arab Spring, edited by Andrea Khalil, by permission of the editor. © 2015 Taylor & Francis. Originally published as a special issue of The Journal of North African Studies 19.2 (2014). For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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