Arab youth activism for gender equality

By Vickie Langohr, College of the Holy Cross

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014. A version of it appeared on The Monkey Cage, November 10.

Many of the political changes initiated by the Arab Spring have negatively affected struggles for gender equality. Violence against politically active women has increased, from the “virginity tests” of protesters in Cairo less than a month after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow to the June 2014 assassination of Selwa Bugaighis, a prominent Libyan activist who helped organize the “Day of Rage” protests which started the Libyan uprising and advocated for gender quotas in parliament. The installation of more competitive elections has often further challenged women’s rights. Egypt’s first post-Mubarak constitutional assembly, whose membership closely reflected the Islamist majority in parliament, produced a constitution in which the main reference to women was a promise that the government would “guarantee the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.” The current constitution, which features much stronger language on women’s rights, including an explicit statement of equality between men and women and state commitments to “appropriate representation” of women in the parliament and to protect women from violence, was produced by an assembly appointed by a decree from the interim president installed by the military after Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow.

These challenges are all quite real. But it is also the case that new forms of grass-roots politics during the Arab Spring have often demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to gender equality among younger generations of activists. While there is no evidence that this commitment is shared by youth (defined here as people under 30 years old) more broadly, the fact that it is enacted by movements which have attained a high profile – often through positive media coverage – may help to “normalize” women’s rights among the broader population. This suggests another issue that begs for more research: the increasing use since the “Arab Spring” of television to break taboos in addressing sensitive social topics and to directly challenge government officials. This essay briefly examines new forms of modelling or working for women’s rights in Morocco and Egypt, highlights how changed media practice has multiplied their effects, and concludes by asking what constitutes the most appropriate universe of comparative cases for exploring these new forms of women’s rights activism. Continue reading here.

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