x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Women united by revolution may be divided by politics

Women fought as equals in this wave of revolutions, but too often politics as usual treats them as objects of concern, not actors in their own right, Faisal al Yafai writes.

When the doyen of Egyptian feminism entered Tahrir Square, the crowds parted in front of her and closed in behind her. Nawal el Saadawi, the psychiatrist and writer who has suffered political repression for her writing on women, is in her late 70s and many decades older than the men and women who filled the square. Yet the defiance and intellectual rigour she represents still resonates with a youthful generation. She has spoken of the conversations she had with protesters, her eyes shining as she recalls their optimism for better days.

When the histories of North Africa's revolutions are written, one thing that will be most remarked on will be the optimism of the young people who led them. One theme that unites these disparate groups and individuals, from different backgrounds, faiths and countries, is the idea that things can get better, that their future can be remade in a different image. Ironically, it was the belief of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia that his future would actually be worse that provided an initial spark.

But after the celebrating comes - hopefully - the campaigning. The danger for North Africa's women is that a pluralistic political system will, for the first time in decades, afford many political groups the opportunity to seek the ears of the people. And in seeking to make political capital, the quickest way is often social commentary, which means women and the family could take centre stage in moral arguments made to gain political office.

Start - since today is International Women's Day - with why the North African revolts were so good for women: they had no specific role. The Arab women who took to the streets were not protesting as women, but as citizens. Throwing off an oppressive regime was the priority. The issues behind the protests were not about men and women but about Tunisians and Egyptians and Libyans.

Soon the divisions will appear. The women on the streets of Cairo and Tunis came from across the social spectrum. Media images focused on women with and without veils standing side by side, making common cause, eliding the fact that these women come from different social backgrounds, from urban and rural areas. When the dust settles it will also be clear they have different views of more complex matters, for example the merits of a market economy or the relationship between the state and religion.

Open campaigning will exacerbate these divisions, in particular views on religion and politics, as political parties frame their ideas in the language of morality. Around this world, and especially in recent decades in the Islamic world, this trend has been apparent in countries as disparate as Egypt and Indonesia.

Having spent much of last year researching a book about feminism in the Islamic world, it is noticeable how Islamist groups have used female morality as a wedge issue, a way to put clear water between themselves and their political opponents. As much as secular political groups can try to co-opt such ideas, they are always playing catch-up, a game in which the rules have been set by others.

In Egypt a couple of years ago, an anonymous campaign appeared online and on the streets, displaying an uncovered lollipop covered in flies juxtaposed with a lollipop with the wrapper on, without flies. "You can't stop them," the text said. "But you can protect yourself."

The message - that wearing the hijab keeps you safe from harassment - was clear, although those behind it were not. Ditto with banners in Indonesian villages urging residents to cover up for the sake of their souls. Maybe neither campaign was the direct work of political groups, but such a climate of morality in politics helps Islamist parties persuade.

Already there are signs that this may happen in North Africa. In Tunisia, Islamists have been campaigning to close down legal brothels, seeking to influence the public mood ahead of elections. Tunisia's government during Ben Ali's rule sought to limit Islamic influence in public life, for example, by discouraging headscarves in government offices and public schools. Such an illiberal move was aimed at the Islamist opposition, but had the effect of removing some of the religious peer pressure on women.

Female-friendly policies were also enacted in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule; the collapse of the country in the post-invasion period saw horrific crimes against women and an attempt to enforce female morality through clothing.

This has been one of the conundrums of feminist thought in recent decades in the Middle East: how to guarantee choice for women, sometimes by enforcing secularity from the top down as a check against religiosity from the ground up.

If and when North Africa moves towards a more open political system, such issues will come out into the open. More politics may not yield more women-friendly politics.

El Saadawi has written against the veil, arguing that it is not required in Islam and that women who claim to wear it by choice are "either lying or ignorant". That puts her at odds with Egyptian women, a significant majority of whom are estimated to wear some version of the veil. There is no doubt the young women of Egypt welcomed her presence in Tahrir Square. When the dust clears, however, they may not welcome her politics.