Focus on women’s organisations in times of revolutionThe world community should listen more to women’s organisations in areas where revolutions take place as these organisations represent the most progressive and democratic forces. This is the belief of Valentine Moghadam, who, in her book Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, has studied the role of women in revolutions and political upheavals from the 17th century up to our present day – from the French Revolution to the recent so-called Arab Spring revolutions.
Facts about Valentine Moghadam
When the book Modernizing Women. Gender and Social Change in the Middle East was first published in 1993, it came at a time where “much ink was spilt” on the question of how far the Middle East and North Africa ever could conquer authoritarian forms of rule and develop democratic systems.
Today, with Valentine Moghadams work now being published in its third revised edition, the region is in the midst of tremendous change, the outcome of which is still unknown but which is driven by a desire to topple authoritarian regimes.
Iranian-born Valentine Moghadam is an American-educated sociologist and she is both hopeful and worried about the situation in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. “It’s too early to predict the outcomes of these revolutions and uprisings that have been taking place all over the region,” tells Moghadam over the phone from Boston. But there is one thing that she believes is certain:
“The biggest threat to the hope that these revolutions will lead to something good for women in the region comes from outside – particularly if the influence appears in the form of a military attack. History, both recent and older, shows that military pressure from outside almost always derails completely local revolutions.”
A favourite women revolutionary – Alexandra Kollontai
In Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, Valentine Moghadam analyses and compares factors and protagonists from social revolutions – from the Russian Bolsheviks to today’s feminist, anti-fundamentalist, cross-national Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité –that have taken place throughout the centuries, with a particular focus on the 20th century. The Russian Revolution primarily serves as a backdrop as the main focus in the work is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
If Moghadam had to choose her favourite revolutionary, it would be the Finnish-Russian communist Alexandra Kollontai. For Moghadam, what makes Kollontai stand out is the fact that, despite being a well-educated and politically high-ranking woman, she insisted on organising the marginalised poor and working women and she was not afraid of falling out of favour with her male peers.
And Moghadam’s favourite revolution – or al least the one that she is preoccupied most with at present – is the 1974 Carnation Revolutionen in Portugal. Here, progressive elements within the military toppled the authoritarian colonial regime and immediately called elections for a constitutional assembly that gave Socialists and Communists 38 and 17 percent of the votes respectively. And it is to analyse exactly which factors that – with the military’s intervention – ensured a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy that can offer useful insight into the current situations in Egypt and the other countries, according to Moghadam.
Revolution and normalisation
Moghadam points out that when we look at revolutions and social upheavals through history it is important to be specific about what she calls periodization. “We can broadly define revolution as a rapid and fundamental change to social and institutional structures. The state is a temporary one – occurring before or after a period of stabilisation and normalisation.”
“During that stage,” continues Moghadam, “everything can, in principle, be turned upside down. Rights which accompanied the revolution can be withdrawn and there can even be a backlash resulting in conditions that are worse than before the revolution.” This was the case in Stalin’s Soviet Union where the historic rights gained by women during the revolution were taken away and traditional perceptions of gender again became the norm. A similar thing happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s where the Taliban – following years of social upheaval that had led to more and more rights for women – established a regime that repressed women on a never-before-seen scale.
Before, during and after
- Modernizing Women. Gender and Social Change in the Middle East – Third Edition, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013. First published in 1993.
- Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks, John Hopkins University Press, 2005
- Women, Work and Economic Reform in the Middle east and North Africa, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998
- Identity Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective, Boulder: Westview Press, 1994
- Comparative studies of the military’s role in the situation of women during the 1974 Portuguese revolution and the upheavals currently occurring in Egypt.
- Social politics following the Arab Spring: dealing with unemployment, healthcare, education etc. As central elements in the social consolidation and in the integration of women in the public sector and in the paid labour market.
Moghadam identifies four factors that influence women’s rights and opportunities during a revolution.
“Firstly, the status held by women before the revolution plays a key role. For example, the situation was much worse in Egypt than in Tunisia, which with its powerful women’s organisations and state recognition of equality stood in a stronger position. No matter how authoritarian Ben Ali was, he still portrayed himself as a proponent of women’s rights. And this has made a huge difference in relation to economic independence and the opportunity for women to organise themselves, for example.”
Secondly, the issue of the revolutionary force’s ideological orientation is a factor. “In Russia, the communists insisted so strongly on women’s rights that it led to immediate and fundamental improvements in 1917, compared to under years under the Tsar where women had few rights,” tells Moghadam.
When Egypt went to the polls in 2012 following the 2011 Tahrir-revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood won a political majority, but were ousted just one year later by a parallel military power. On the surface, there does not seem to be any indication that these revolutions will improve the situation of women in Egypt, according to Moghadam. However, she is more optimistic in the case of Tunisia. “Here, a unity government has been elected which has Islamic powers but which is willing to abide by democratic rules. And this leaves a much larger space for the country’s women’s organisations, who demand to be heard and who – to a point –are actually consulted with,” explains Moghadam.
The third factor is the role of women during the revolution itself. Again, Moghadam points out the differences between Egypt and Tunisia. “The feminist groups in Egypt have operated under extremely difficult conditions under the Mubarak regime. They are small and are more or less limited to an urban, well-educated elite. They didn’t manage to play an organised role during the days of protest at Tahrir Square. One reason for this is that they hadn’t organised themselves across the social classes like in Tunisia, where the women’s organisations worked with the union movement, for example,” explains Moghadam.
In the stabilisation phase in Tunisia, the women’s organisations have constantly reminded the coalition government of their existence. “They’ve been breathing down the necks of those in power – both old and new – and they have not retracted a single one of their demands. And when the new constitution was being drawn up, they had contacts and influence and were able to scrutinise every comma, making their voice heard up every time they were alarmed by something,” tells Moghadam.
The fourth (and in some ways most decisive) factor is the international or the external factor. “Wars and military intervention usually always have a negative effect on the situation of women,” explains Moghadam. “Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are all stark examples of this. I know that some researchers may disagree – they say ‘look at Burundi and Rwanda where women’s rights have been improved thanks to military intervention.’ But in these cases, we’re talking about extremely poor countries with extremely weak state institutions that practically are governed from outside to this day today.”
According to Moghadam, military intervention or pressure from outside during virtually every revolution has had a negative impact on women, from the post-revolutionary Soviet Union that operated in an extremely hostile international climate to Iran today.
“International solidarity in a non-sectarian form can play a positive role,” continues Moghadam. “But when external powers intervene and start meddling militarily phenomena such as hyper-masculinity flare up. And you’ll find very few examples of local women’s organisations calling for military intervention from outside, as no matter how bad the situation may be, it is only likely to deteriorate for the women.” Even the mere threat of military intervention can often be enough to strengthen reactionary Islamic forces, believes Moghadam.
New focus – not a new situation
Whereas some western commentators have expressed their surprise that violence against women flared up in Egypt as soon as Mubarak was deposed and the euphoria had passed, Moghadam is more objective in her evaluation of the events.
“It’s misleading to talk about an outbreak or ‘extremisation’ of violence against women. The sad fact is that it’s nothing new in the region. In the early 2000s, Collectif 95 Mahgreb-Egalité conducted a major study of domestic and public violence against women, and the real scale of the problem that they uncovered astounded both themselves and the authoritarian leaders. It was just that not many people in the West took any notice of it at that time.”
She believes that the optimism about what really was at stake in the revolution was highly exaggerated, and she cautions becoming too pleased about military’s ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
In general, Moghadam is less concerned about the MENA region’s Islamic forces in themselves; on the other hand, she remains very concerned about the international pressure that could possibly serve to strengthen these forces.
“I’ve always wanted more people to listen to the women’s organisations, which often represent the most progressive, visionary and democratic forces. But they are very rarely consulted when the ‘international community’ feels it is being called into action,” tells Moghadam.
Hope from civilian society
Two things have surprised Moghadam in connection with the so-called Arab Spring. Firstly, Algeria has apparently failed to follow through in undertaking fundamental changes. This could be put down to the fact that a bloody battle between government powers and the right-wing fundamentalist groups Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) and Group Islamique Armée (which for years conducted a terror campaign, particularly aimed at women) is still fresh in people’s minds. Therefore, people perhaps do not feel the urge to set in motion a new upheaval, the outcome of which they cannot be sure.
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Secondly, the ‘second uprising’ in Egypt came as a surprise to Moghadam. “It wasn’t a surprise that the Islamic forces won the political power struggle once Mubarak had been ousted. The Muslim Brotherhood had held much sway throughout Egyptian society, despite being prohibited by law. Nor was it surprising that the military intervened when it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood had only intended making use of democracy the one time – and would then proceed to do away with it. The military had its own interests to protect. But what I was surprised by was how many people – including many who had voted for the Muslim brotherhood – took to the streets again when it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood weren’t prepared to deliver social change.”
Nevertheless, Moghadam is not optimistic about the outlook for Egyptian society. All four factors – the status of women before the revolution, the role of women during the revolution, the ideology of those now in power, and the pressure from outside – all point in the wrong direction. But in Tunisia and for the region in general the revolutions have led to a more empowered civil society which, in the long term, is capable of driving things in the right direction.
“First of all, it’s groups such as Collectif Mahgreb, The Wassila Network, Egyptian Center for Womens Rights, CREDIF and AFTURD. Then comes groups of progressive lawyers, doctors and journalists, which have blossomed in recent years, as well as the union movement in Tunisia, for example, not to mention the various youth organisations across the MENA region,” explains Moghadam. “It is this new, vibrant network of grassroots groups that gives me hope for women in the Middle East and North Africa.”