Why is it critical to begin with civil society or even the home rather than the State to locate change? We have an entirely groundless though fervent preference to equate politics with the State. For understanding the events that led up to these revolutions one can only begin with the people.
Analysts of the Arab Spring are busily trying to make sense of the dramatic shift that happened primarily in Egypt. These analyses are valuable because they are attempts to understand how such a momentous shift could happen in the mother country of the Arab world and what lessons can be learned from the events for the wider region. However, if women are not factored into these analyses they will remain inadequate in explaining what really happened and useless in providing the groundwork for other places facing similar challenges. This article argues that to truly make sense of the events, women matter.
To know how women played such an influential role, it is essential to look at Egyptian women activists in at least the decade leading up to the revolution in 2011. Through my investigation of women’s participation in primarily private voluntary organizations from 2001 until the revolution, it is apparent that women have long been the cornerstone to shaping concepts of civil society and democracy. It is through this shaping of ideas and pushing of principles that gave rise to the force that toppled the authoritarian regime. Moreover, in the exploration of both secular and ‘Islamist’ women’s organizations, I can but offer a steadfast critique of the view that Islamic women activists are insignificant, ‘backward’ or ‘uncivil’. While both organizational types formed the culture that birthed the revolution, Islamist women have been adept in imbuing Egypt’s citizenry with Islamist ideals.
Politics then is indeed the business of all civil society groupings and any human being attempting to disrupt the patterns of control of freedoms or merely attempting to secure basic dignity and rights.
Why is it critical to begin with civil society or even the home rather than the State to locate change? Few analysts begin looking at the grassroots because as political scientists we have been trained to focus on the State to both follow and make sense of politics. It is as simple as that. We have an entirely groundless though fervent preference to equate politics with the State. For understanding the events that led up to these revolutions one can only begin with the people. It is also surprising that some people still think that democracy is something that can be transported and imposed from the top down. Democracy cannot be created at the State level. That is impossible not only because for all these decades democracy was simply window dressing for the ugly and greedy transactions that transpired to strip citizens of their right to a good life. It is impossible because what counts is how politics is not only driven but sustained. True change at the state level and within what is termed the public sphere cannot stick if it is not developed and supported from the grassroots, including what is termed the private sphere. Politics then is indeed the business of all civil society groupings and any human being attempting to disrupt the patterns of control of freedoms or merely attempting to secure basic dignity and rights. The private and civil society avenues are most significant because through them every day individuals change the political culture on which ideology and action sprout.
How is women’s activism so important to understanding these changes? As a woman myself, I know that when I attend a course for some type of self-development, when I teach my children some form of civic behavior daily - as I know most mother do, when I stand steadfast behind my significant other for something he thinks is good for public life – as goes without much thinking for most women, actually even when I pray in private, I am creating positive change! What is critical to note here are two things: one, few give much thought to the way women consistently contribute to public life through daily activities because they are done in the private sphere. Two, such ‘activism’ is clearly feminine in nature. These acts are not usually masculine overt actions of confrontation and direct resistance. Thus, these everyday forms of action are discounted as anything remotely political and therefore deemed inconsequential to political change.
But during my research, Islamists kept telling me in different ways that ‘slow is fast and fast is slow’ with little every day private and personal acts and that to change the State you have to start small. For them, this means visiting a halaka to learn ‘morals’, teaching children ‘manners’, or supporting the husband in public life. All this is for the ‘sake of Allah’ or an obligation for doing khair. They insisted that women were pivotal because only women could act in such a manner. I was told clearly that these acts were of no small consequence to political change and that they were sometimes strategically aimed at dismantling the State. However, strategy means a) working through the family and b) inculcating ideas through society. Critically, such strategy is indispensible in the face of a brutal authoritarian regime. But few notice or value these subtle acts precisely because they are subtle, feminine and begin not only within civil society but the private sphere. Regardless, self-development, charity and imbuing society with ideals were highly coveted femininely structured political moves aimed at creating the positive change deemed necessary to establishing greater rights, freedoms and dignity and then encroach upon the State.
[Women’s] everyday forms of action are discounted as anything remotely political and therefore deemed inconsequential to political change. Few notice or value these subtle acts precisely because they are subtle, feminine and begin not only within civil society but the private sphere.
Secular women’s organizations operated more recognizably ‘strategic’ because they addressed rights violations and interacted directly with government officials. Islamic women’s organizations did not confront the State in regards to repressive laws against women and children and therefore their acts can be categorized as more practical and feminine, although strategically so. Women’s secular organizations had successes along the way in providing legal council to women, identity cards to thousands who could only demand some of their rights with an I.D. card, and educating women about their rights vis-a-vis the State. All this was for the sake of humanity according to the leaders of the organizations but also khair for mostly all other participants. In these ways, secular women’s organizations helped mitigate the impact of repressive political and economic State action. They have contributed to consciousness-raising alongside basic education that leads to greater understanding of dignity and rights. However, the value of women’s secular organizations to the creation of a civil society that supported the dramatic changes is misunderstood in similar ways to the Islamic organizations.
The secular women’s organizations could not direct most of their activities towards the State, given the extent of patriarchal and authoritarian rule. Rather their activities took on the same strategies as the Islamic organizations I was visiting as most often their main avenues for creating change. Both provided self-development classes, albeit with often different foci. Islamist organizations are primarily concerned with developing piety. But both taught women basic skills to contribute better to their families and society, or how to read, a basic skill that is lacking in many areas. Mostly seculars taught communication skills to get around husbands who were oppressive so that they can work and participate in public life.
Although not frequent, activists in the secular women’s organizations used the Qur’an in their lessons to show women verses that women could refer to when talking to their husbands about their rights. Some used the Qur’an to teach women to read. As some secular participants emphasized to me, the Qur’an was used by some of these husbands to justify ill behavior against their wives. As such, a form of ‘Islamic feminism’ was found necessary among some secular women’s organizations. Therefore, the way in which these two organizational types help women does not always differ substantially and in some cases, hardly.
Pitting these two groupings against one another is senseless when in effect they both contribute to the type of learning and development so crucial to change. These two organizational types operated within the same environment framed by the Mubarak regime of harsh economic constraints, political repression and greed. While some women had financial means to carry out the work they continue to do, the vast majority of activists do not and in fact their work is directed mostly towards mitigating the challenges of poverty and lack of resources. Because poor women engage in activities that enable them to circumvent or challenge power structures, they were long contributing to the process of empowerment and their development; hence, political change.
However, I discovered that it was not only the educating and providing of skills that equipped the women themselves and those they extended their efforts to, to create such a shift. Of specific value to creating the kinds of capacities among individuals that support peaceful transition and the passionate desire for democratic principles is the inculcation of civic and democratic values. Therefore, it is the kinds of values that are absorbed and transferred into action that matter. All these forms of activism among both ‘secular’ and ‘Islamist’ organizations contributed to greater consciousness and capacities to desire democratic principles and practice.
Thus, when the women empowered themselves and others through self-development, various training, literacy classes and addressing where rights are lacking from the roots of authoritarian practice in the home, they consequently contributed to the democratic ideals of equality. Through their participation together, they crucially learn and develop the principles of tolerance of others, cooperation, trust and reciprocity. They embody the principles of democracy through the pains, struggles and successes shared together. They act as models for those they work and interact with through practicing their ideals. In essence, they become the force for change they eventually witnessed. Where I find a correlation for the societal embodiment of democratic ideals throughout society leading up to the revolution is within the development of democratic principles on the tiniest unit – the individual. Only once the individual has the capacities of civility, can she develop those in her surrounding environment, as in through relationships, networks, groups and associations. If she is empowered, then self-sufficiency to extend and sustain these practices in these interdependent relationships is ensured.
Because poor women engage in activities that enable them to circumvent or challenge power structures, they were long contributing to the process of empowerment and their development; hence, political change.
In this, it is also important to underscore that enabling women to become instruments of positive change is not always linear. I felt that sometimes women’s learning in some of the halakas I attended served to constrain their passions for expressing what they have to offer as equal citizens. For example, in line with learning ‘piety’ a woman being told that she was to blame for her husband taking on a second wife because she did not wear the headscarf as interpreted to be mandated by religion can likely only continue a culture of repressed anger and inaction in face of a perceived injustice. Although most women are veiled in secular organizations, a participant of one secular organization narrated that when she chose to start veiling the majority of members (in management and not veiled) disassociated themselves from her. Such reaction is an expression of intolerance to difference and freedom of expression.
Yet, it is simultaneously these instances that serve as a springboard for greater learning too. While visiting in one Islamist organization, I overheard one director of its branch organization stating that she had refused the charity of a Christian whereby the head of the network of organizations named the act as not in line with the mission of creating inclusiveness, chastised her for her intolerant behavior and demanded that that never happen again. Examples of intolerance and the like do not comprise the majority of actions and only illustrate that the majority of work the women involve themselves in actually requires a great deal of patience and effort in inculcating positive principles and values. It is in this effort of dealing with the reality of prejudice and misunderstanding that must arise in all evolving societies that change in ideas is borne.
The revolution in Egypt of 2011 is really a result of a long period of struggle in which an ethos of democratic desire and values has been impregnated into society from the grassroots up. The impact of the women is enduring because they structure civic principles and reform into their activism. Middle Eastern women are far from the passive half of society as the literature teaches us in the West. They have been pivotal to the momentous change. Not to be ignored too, many were central to the rise of an Islamist government. Islamism did not take shape at the State level without feminine activism. Yet, it is the general democratic ethos, which has pervaded the heart of this polity’s political culture, and which importantly will determine what politics will really look like in the time to come.
Currently Adjunct Assistant Professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Qatar Foundation, teaching Strategic Management of Public Organizations, Formerly Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and formerly Founding Coordinator of the Gulf Studies MA Program, Qatar University, she has focused her work, consultancy and articles on the role of women activists in civil society in the Middle East and political change through spiritual activism. She is the author of Women in Civil Society: The State, Islamism and Networks in the UAE, New York: Palgrave-McMillan (2008), and this article is drawn from her book Civil Society and Women Activists in the Middle East: Islamic and Secular Organizations in Egypt, London: I.B. Tauris, newly published (2012).