Among the many young faces to emerge from the wave of the Arab Spring, which has characterized the year 2011 which is now drawing to a close, is that of female Yemeni political activist Tawakkol Karman. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, a leading international honor, and it is no coincidence [that she was awarded this prize in the year of the Arab Spring].
For many, what has happened in the region, starting from Tunisia, and spreading to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and now Syria, was surprising and unexpected, particularly the magnitude and popular-nature of these uprisings. This is despite the fact that all factors were interacting with one another and indicating that a future explosion would take place, which would be something whose timing and nature nobody could predict. Yet the second major surprise was the strong presence of women in the protests and revolutions, contrary to the impression that prevails around the world that these are male-dominated societies where women are marginalized.
In all of these countries, we saw photographs and televised scenes of the demonstrations and protests, with the faces of women clearly present in the crowds, and female activists playing a major role in mass mobilization and incitement. Although the popular demands did not contain anything relating to women specifically, it is expected, of course, that such demands will surface later, in light of women’s participation in bringing about change.
Perhaps the most striking words attributed to Tawakkol Karman after she was jointly-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – along with her Liberian fellow Nobel Laureates – was her expression of regret that she would not be able to run for the [Yemeni] presidency. She also said that she was not concerned about women’s rights in Yemen, in light of the fact that she is one of the female activists of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform party [Al-Islah Party]. This party represents the Islamist trend in Yemen; this is a trend that has always given the impression of being no friend to the role of women in public life, so has this now changed? This is an open question and the answer depends on future experiences, for we are navigating uncharted waters whose waves and whirlpools are still in the process of formation and interaction.
Some countries have taken the first steps towards change following the ouster of their former regimes, entering the “laying the foundation” [for the future] stage, whether by forming a new government through the election of a new parliament, as in Tunisia following the revolution, or likewise the ongoing process to elect the first [post-revolution] parliament in Egypt. Yet in Libya, it is clear that the women’s share of the votes for seats in the new governing bodies and political system is not commensurate with the size of their role in bringing about change in the country. Voters’ mentalities have not changed completely; they still vote in the traditional manner with regards to male and female candidates, and the new political forces that have appeared on the scene still do not grant women a representative share commensurate with their size in the community.
This is an issue that will take time, because changing the culture of a society does not take place at the push of a button, rather it is a continuous, interactive process that develops as long as there is political and cultural vitality within society.
It may be appropriate here to consider the issue of a quota, or determining a certain share for women in the forthcoming elected parliaments. In other words, this would mean resorting to the idea of “empowerment” for a given period of time, in order to familiarize society and enrich political life, and so that voters become used to the political presence of women within these new institutions. This is an old idea that even some of the ousted regimes used to resort to, as it can be applied in a distorted manner to give a false impression. However, not everything old is wrong, and women deserve to be empowered during this era of revolutions, as they are partners in these revolutions, as they are in society.