Live-Blog: “Arab Spring or Arab Autumn: Women’s Political Participation in the Arab Uprisings and Beyond”

PITAPOLICY Summarizes: The Wilson Center Middle East Program was the first in Washington, DC to convene a discussion on women in the Middle East and North Africa region, shared its Program Director, Haleh Esfandiari.  The panel debated to what extent Arab women’s political participation has produced economic, political, social, and legal gains:  Spring, Autumn, or euphoria–meaning that obstacles for women have decreased or increased or are improving at different levels.  There is a paradox: women being sidelined as they are still part of organizing because of fragmentation.  It’s problematic.


Photo by PITAPOLICY at Wilson Center: (Left to Right) Haleh Esfandiari, Stephenie Foster, Sherine Ibrahim, Maryam Jamshaidi

Ibrahim pointed out that three divides pose challenges for the women’s movement, according to her report for CARE.  These divides are: generational, demographic (urban versus rural), and socio-economic.  Jamshaidi, pushed back a bit on the generational point by explaining that different generations of women continue to push back on the concept of ‘Public Space’.  In fact, they use it more creatively to challenge social, cultural, and business norms.  At the same time, Ibrahim noted that the state has had a history of interrupting public spaces in varying degrees depending on the country.  (Fair point.)   Overall, the discussion focused on more examples from Egypt and a few from Yemen and Palestine.  Although we heard two great contrasting interpretations from Ibrahim and Jamshaidi, on the status of women’s political participation in the MENA region, we wish we had heard some more concrete country examples.

In addition, Esfandiari supplied a great personal anecdote from her time being imprisoned in Iran.  She explained, that during her political imprisonment in 2007, she was struck by how stunned her prison guard was that over thousands of Arab women had signed a petition calling for her release.  Her prison guard’s realization at Esfandiari’s overwhelming support by Arab women–Middle Eastern neighbors, many of whom were probably mostly Muslim–united for Esfandiari’s freedom.  The petition was started by an Iraqi woman, according to Esfandiari.


We are live-blogging the event hosted by The Middle East Program and Global Women’s Leadership Initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Center and CARE:  Arab Spring or Arab Autumn: Women’s Political Participation in the Arab Uprisings and Beyond

We are especially excited because one of the panelists is Maryam Jamshaidi, the founder of Muftah.Org, which lists PITAPOLICY Blog on its side!


Stephenie Foster
Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Global Women’s Issues, State Department

Sherine Ibrahim
Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and Eastern Europe, CARE

Maryam Jamshidi
Founder,, and Author, “The Future of the Arab Spring: Civic Entrepreneurship in Politics, Art, and Technology Startups”

Haleh Esfandiari
Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

In 2010 as young people across the Arab world began to rise up and demand a new kind of politics, women were active as leaders and participants, taking part in demonstrations, making their voices heard, and seeking change. Talk of an Arab Spring has now been succeeded by warnings about diminished human rights and democracy in the region. Within this complex and evolving picture, what are the prospects for expanding women’s rights? What is the evolving role of women in shaping the future of the region?-Wilson Center MEP

Esfandiari:  Congress established The Wilson Center as the official memorial to President Woodrow Wilson, a nonpartisan center of research and dialogue.  Earlier today, we held an event looking at Egypt. MEP has convened over 100 meetings on gender alone–the first in Washington, DC to host one focused on women in the MENA region.

CARE is co-sponsoring because the focus on women and family poverty in 84 countries–reaching 83 million people in the world.

Ibrahim: Quoting from opening of new report she has released looking at “Spring” to “Autumn” “To join the protests on Friday mornings,and pray jumaah, I had to take rugged routes on Thursday to get there, no force would stop me.”

Note World Economic Forum Gender Gap report: MENA women ranked at bottom.

Note Parliamentarian Participation

  • Egypt in 2012 parliament: the lowest ever.
  • Yemen: only 3 women hold Ministerial posts out of 35 positions.
  • Palestinian Authority: 17 women out of 132 men represented.

This is a critical time.  In the spirit of social and gender justice movement,  the spotlight has moved away from women’s issues in general…now focus is on safety, security, and counter-terrorism.

First challenge: The divisions are divided across 1) urban versus rural, 2) generational, 3) socio-economic.

Second Challenge: The established women’s movement is not renewed…the challenge is to reach younger activists–especially in dialogue:  if you can’t find the opportunity or common ground.

Many felt that they were co-opted by states.  In these institutions, there is an experience

3rd Challenge: Note Islamic women’s activists… some noted the intolerance of liberals.

It’s not just the spotlight has been taken away, but the fact is that we’re not helping each other to bring back the spotlight because of this fragmentation described.


1) We want to make sure that the more established institutions and organizations (MEN and women) in the women’s movement can bridge the divide.  There’s a lot of fear, anxiety and division.  CARE is an example that is looking at that.

2) There is a need to focus on being more flexible in working with young men and women because they are in a state of disappointment.  Many haven’t been able to channel that excitement or euphoria.

3)  We need to bridge the religious and secular divide (while acknowledging that these are very loose categories.)  There are some interesting and progressive attempts to reinterpret and realign related to women’s rights.  Note Mussawa, a forum doing that already.

4) We need to foster the conditions for civil society to thrive to bridge 3 divides, e.g.: Donor governments need to take a more proactive approach…let’s not compromise one issue area (women rights) over others (security).

5) Mechanism: hold not just national government accountable to the donor money, bu the donorgovernment as well on such programming to advance policy areas.  Told that recipient governments should be held accountable.

Jamshaidi: I’m going to push back a bit on what Sherine Ibrahim said based on civic entrepreneurship and its related shift.   The “West” still grapples with concept of what constitutes a revolution in Arab transition countries.  There have been revolutions, although their outcomes remain unclear.  It’s not just political shifts within a country, but how people see their relationships with their governments.  Also, there have been transformations in the Arab world about how even business is done.

Civic entrepreneurship: citizen driven effort to organize with resources to help further public good.  They’re pretty creative and innovation. Cites anthropologist, David Graber: followed by intellectual and artistic activity as they see that they all have a right.

There have been many Arab countries that had a public sphere.  Yes, some were more interrupted by state interference.  It’s just as important to democracy as elections, citing Hannah Arendt.

Disagrees with Ibrahim: There has been collaboration across generations and socio-economic barriers.  We saw diaspora working with host country, note technology sector.  It’s been a dynamic process.   There’s been on the job training.

Women’s Participation

This didn’t occur within a ‘blackbox’.  Don’t want to generalize, but by and large, women did have a public presence across the Arab world.  Gives example of women and men working together in nationalist movements mobilizing against colonialism.  Women made the strategic decision to put women’s rights issues behind the movement…but they were not rewarded for this strategic move. Every Arab country granted women the right to vote except Saudi Arabia and the UAE–where no one gets to vote.

Since the “Arab Spring” (PITAPOLICY: prefer to call it Arab Awakenened, so will continue to use instead).

Jamshaidi shares policy recs: Institutionalization and Innovation both needed. Set benchmarks in gauging women’s progress in the region.  Embed cause for women’s rights within social justice movement.

Foster: Women’s economic empowerment, political participation, protecting women in conflict are all inter-related and are the focus of Office of Global Women’s Issues within the US State Department. Women’s rights is a priority. We work through programming mainly through USAID.

Through programming: “We work with trade union movements and women in journalism” to bring participation and prevent conflict.  Emphasizes the power of cultural and educational exchanges to encourage network building and their likelihood to participate more in home countries via elections and public life.

Esfandiari: Shares personal story from 2007 when imprisoned in Iran under solitary confinement.  Her jailer was stunned with number of hundreds and thousands of Arab women who signed a petition calling for her freedom–disputing the myth that it was just a bunch of “Western women”.  The petition was started by an Iraqi women.

Jamshaidi on personal status law:  Before July 3rd, there was a movement to have religious affiliation removed from national identity cards.  These are problematic because it allows more government involvement.

Foster: Believes that women face challenges in Arab world because they don’t have collateral, or ability to own property, when getting capital together.  Jordan and Morocco participate in Equal Futures program.  “Interesting point: Arab countries are committed to looking at barriers”.

According to the World Economic Forum Gender Parity report: There is more gender parity in economic sphere than in the political sphere–but there are still barriers to both, and they’re interlinked.

Ibrahim: It depends on how you define political participation–everything I do is political participation if I do something in my village regarding my social or economic sphere. Women make up 26 percent of the labor force in the MENA region.

Platform for Accountability

Arab Network on Accountability encourages young men and women, whether they have access to internet or not, by giving them a space to develop the tools to hold “duty bearers” accountable.  It is up to them to develop the tools–especially when political platforms are closed.

“Discuss what women leaders do, not what she wears!” response to a 2012 poll in Egypt where 18% of respondents would welcome a women leader.

Jamshaidi: Talking about technology startups has become fashionable (agreed), which many have been started by women.  (See PITAPOLICY coverage of technology startups when Mehrunisa Qayyum visited Lebanon.) Also recommend checking out Asma Mahfouz’s video on Youtube, which calls on men in Egypt to join in one of the protests.  Remember, Committee for Egypt constitution had only 5 women of the 50 serving.  Legal efforts need to complement the organizing efforts.

Comment on persistent growth of informal economy: Nabesh based in Dubai helps freelancers find opportunities.

Ibrahim: There is a paradox…women being sidelined as they are still part of organizing because of fragmentation.  It’s problematic.  One of the opportunities–aside from losing the battle for quotas–seize the opportunity to pushback on “what does reasonable representation” mean.

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