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Shaima Saif

Why women have been so important to the Arab Spring?

The Middle Eastern countries are not exactly renowned for their equal treatment towards women whether it be for education or economic prosperity.

I am really glad that Justina Mutale earlier mentioned the global gender gap index released by the World Economic Forum in October 2013. The Region of the Middle East and North Africa was placed in the lower quartile of the global gender gap index. Yemen, my home country of family origin, unfortunately ranks 136th out of 136 countries. There is an interconnected web of misfortunes. Lack of access to education, sheer poverty, cultural reasons, not religious, can be noted as a barrier for not reducing the gender gap. There are challenges for women in the family, the society and by the state to reducing this gap.

The uprisings began in Tunisia and spread through the Middle East. For many it became a real shock to the system especially for those of my parents and grandparents generations who had only known living under these regimes. I will not go into details about these uprisings but just to look at the way the uprisings challenged the stereotypes of Arab women were very much challenged.

The stereotypes of Arab women being apolitical were shaken to the core as women were on the frontlines being shot at during peaceful protests. Where Arab women were seen as reclusive, secluded, veiled and mysterious, they were loud and proud, dignified and resolute in the face of these oppressive regimes. They too, alongside men, called for justice and liberty and freedom.

If we look at the various roles in which women took in the uprisings. They played the supportive role providing the lunches and the dinners. They also provided the food and shelter while caring for the wounded. They attended the protests. In many cases you find the reports of women actually physically defending themselves. There are reports of women taking up arms in Syria.

The women were known as the ‘Mothers of the uprisings’. The prime example would be the Nobel Prize Laureate, Tawakkol Karman, who united thousands with cries for freedom from the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. She is a perfect example of defiance in a society which has a very conservative culture towards women in the public sphere.

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