MENA Uprisings Followed by Opportunities and ThreatsThe situations in Iraq and in Egypt are radically different, but the fact that both countries are undergoing dramatic political change – change that offers both great opportunities and great risks for women – is something the two countries have in common. This is according to Iraqi-German Nadje Al-Ali, Professor in Gender Studies at the University of London.
Facts about Nadje Al-Ali
In 2002, Nadje Al-Ali wrote the following: “The women’s movements in the different countries of the Middle East have historically progressed in different ways. But despite this, they have a number of things in common: their association with national movements, their relation and links to modernisation and development processes, and tensions between secular and religious currents.”
The following year, the USA invaded Iraq, with the support of other countries (including Denmark), and in 2010 the Arab Spring revolutions began taking place, starting off in Tunisia and spreading to other countries across the region including Egypt.
Today, one further common feature can be added to Nadje Al-Ali’s analysis from 2002: the fact that the women’s movements across the Middle East currently find themselves in the middle of great political change that as well as offering great opportunity also brings with it great risks. Professor Nadje Al-Ali herself, head of the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), came with this update when she was invited by KVINFO to visit Denmark in April 2013.
Experience from Iraq
Nadje Al-Ali herself is a good example of the connection between differences and common factors. She is an Iraqi-German, educated at Cairo University and has written her PhD thesis at SOAS in London on the subject of the Egyptian women’s movement. She has personally been involved in the Egyptian women’s movement and is cofounder of the organisation Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq. Since the end of the 1990s, she has researched modern Iraqi history and the lives of women in contemporary war-torn Iraq.
Nadje Al-Ali believes that the lessons learned from Iraq can be used in relation to the current situation in other countries, including Egypt.
“The context is radically different, but the two countries share fundamental conditions and fundamental challenges: both are undergoing dramatic processes of change that are opening the way for both new opportunity and also new forms of violence. And in both countries, democracy is trying to be established by means of electoral processes. There’s a fine line between ‘vote-casting democracy’ and populism,” says Al-Ali.
She points to Iraq as a horror scenario of how representative democracy can slip into “institutionalised sectarianism.”
“Instead of a structure built up around political positions and contrasts, the notion of inherent links to ethnic or religious identities, for example, has become ingrained within the parliamentary infrastructure,” says Nadje Al-Ali.
Dogged by its colonial legacy
- We Are Iraqis. Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War (2012), Syracuse University Press, (red., med Deborah Al-Najjar)
- What kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq (2009), University of California Press (med Nicola Pratt)
- Women and War in the Middle East: Transnational Perspectives (2009), Zed Books (med Nicola Pratt)
- Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (2007), Zed Books
- New Approaches to Migration (2002), Routledge (red., med Khalid Koser)
- Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East (2000), Cambridge University Press
- Gender Writing - Writing Gender (1994), The American University in Cairo Press
I In the book Women and War in the Middle East, Al-Ali uses empirical examples to show the consequences that institutionalised sectarianism has had upon the lives of women in Iraq. And in the book Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, she explores historic studies and generations of pre-Saddam Hussein regime women’s activists to show that sectarianism is not something engrained within the nature of Iraq or the Iraqi people. Sectarianism is a recent phenomenon.
“The Americans introduced quotas for ethnic and religious groups in Iraq’s transitional government, and by doing so they stuck to sectarian dividing lines rather than political dividing lines,” says Nadje Al-Ali.
A quota for women set at 25 percent was also introduced. According to Al-Ali, there is a widespread misconception that this was brought in following pressure from the USA.
“On the contrary, this was a requirement that came from Iraq’s women’s movement, which was originally dismissed by Paul Bremer [US diplomat and administrator of the provisional government in Iraq after the invasion, ed.]”.
Nadje Al-Ali believes that the explanation for the US strategy is to be found in ignorance, orientalism and in the traditions of colonial forms of government.
“Toby Dodge [Middle East expert and vice president of The Department of International Relations, Diplomacy and Strategy at The London School of Economics, ed.] has written a book about Iraq under British colonial rule. The similarities with the Iraq of today are striking – an all-too-simple perception of the country which essentialises and emphasises those structures that the colonial power, and now the occupying power, can see. An atmosphere around ethnic and religious identities is whipped up that is highly damaging – not least for the conditions of women.”
“An atmosphere around ethnic and religious identities is whipped up that is highly damaging – not least for the conditions of women”
Women used to legitimise the war
Ten years ago, everybody was talking about the liberation of women in Iraq and Afghanistan; now this is a cause being talked about by nobody. Are the issues that made the topic so talked about back then the same as those that are now keeping people silent?
“The perception that we have to save the brown women from the brown men is as old as the hills – and it has never primarily been about women’s liberation. Having said that, there were different voices all with different motivations,” tells Nadje Al-Ali.
“The political powerbrokers in the West instrumentalised women as a means of legitimising the war. It’s not hard to guess why these same people are now silent on the topic of the conditions for women. Those who I call imperialist feminists, on the other hand, were motivated by an apparently deep-felt desire to liberate their poor sisters. But the minute the sectarian violence really broke out, the emphasis shifted from human security to national security. From then on, everything was about stemming the violence. And since 2005, women have been completely dropped from the agenda.”
The events in both Iraq and Egypt have failed to live up to expectations, both domestically and among those who are living outside their home countries or have returned home from abroad to contribute to the rebuilding of a new society. And as Nadje Al-Ali explains, when the hope of something better is dashed as it meets reality, it is difficult to maintain momentum.
“Women have often been at the forefront of the revolutionary processes, but equally, women have been sidelined when the political structures need to be redrawn. An opening becomes a backlash when new political positions are established, and that’s precisely what we’re seeing in the Middle East now,” explains Al-Ali.
“The political powerbrokers in the West instrumentalised women as a means of legitimising the war. It’s not hard to guess why these same people are now silent on the topic of the conditions for women”
Women as disparity indicators
“It is a well-established feminist point that in any situation marked by tension and conflict women are used as disparity indicators. This has been the case throughout history and across cultures and national boundaries,” explains Nadje Al-Ali.
“Both Egypt and Iraq were subjected to secular regimes where Islamist currents were both politically suppressed and had poor support among the populations. People voted Arab nationalist and Arab socialist – not Islamic. Both Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak were secular leaders and terribly authoritarian dictators. So secularism is no guarantee of anything, and people are now thirsting after something else.”
In connection with this, Islamism is now construed as being something authentic to which people can return, explains Nadje Al-Ali. One of the major battles taking place right now is that of ‘The Personal Status Code’ – the set of laws that regulate marriage, divorce, parental custody and inheritance – and which impacts significantly on the rights and conditions of women.
“Under Saddam Hussein, for example, Iraq had a relatively progressive personal status code. But across the entire region there is now huge pressure to pull this area of legislation in a more conservative direction. It’s a very symbolic attack on the legacies left behind from the secular regimes – and it’s a protest against imperialist aggression, where the rhetoric about women’s liberation was used as a means of gaining moral legitimacy,” says Nadje Al-Ali.
Allied with authoritarian regimes
In Egypt, the women’s movement has continuously been strong, whereas the women’s movement in Iraq, which was strong in the first half of the 20th century, was amputated along with the rest of civil society under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
“Compared to Iraq, Egypt under Mubarak was a paradise. But in both countries there existed a kind of state feminism. Many of the progressive laws were introduced during the period these authoritarian regimes were in power. That’s why it’s easy to discuss feminism now.”
“It’s easy for outsiders to say that those women in Tunisia, Egypt or Iraq who allied themselves with the authoritarian regimes were wrong – but what would these same people have chosen to do if they were in that same situation?” asks Nadje Al-Ali.
“The same is true when it comes to the choices made by the women’s movement in Egypt during the first phases of the ‘revolution’. I was shocked to hear my Egyptian friends tell me that they were standing in Tahrir Square not as women or feminists but as Egyptians. Time after time, history has taught us that if we have to lay down demands right from the beginning, because after that there is never again a ‘right time’ to do so.”
According to Al-Ali, most of the anti-feminist secular groups have now realised that women and the issue of gender is central in the battle to determine the direction the country will move forward.
“Women are under relentless attack from the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – women’s bodies are at the centre of the battle for the revolution’s soul.”
No easy answers
When asked why she thinks that women in Egypt have chosen to hold back on their feminist demands, Nadje Al-Ali responds:
“That’s difficult to say. Nationalism is a very strong emotion… But one thing that is certain is the fact that virtually all of them now regret having done so. I don’t know what I myself would have felt if I’d been standing on the square for all those days. Would I just have felt myself as part of one big crowd? People said how they had felt safe, they felt included and on an equal footing to all the others. And they liked that feeling. A strong sense of solidarity that people got caught up in and brushed aside rational intellectual contemplation.”
“If we are to pick out one lesson from what is going on in the Middle East right now, it should be that we as feminists need to carefully consider whom we ally ourselves with”
Danish-Arab Partnership Programme
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“If we are to pick out one lesson from what is going on in the Middle East right now, it should be that we as feminists need to carefully consider whom we ally ourselves with,” warns Nadje Al-Ali, adding, “but to be quite honest, I still don’t have any answer to what we ought to do when the state’s interests happen to be the same as the demands of the women’s movement. It’s easy for me – all too easy – to criticise the fact that some Egyptian women worked together with Suzie Mubarak [former President Hosni Mubarak’s wife, ed.]. Or that some Iraqi women joined the Ba’ath party’s General Federation of Iraqi Women [Saddam Hussein was leader of the Ba’ath party, ed.]. The only certain thing is that if you run the risk of allying yourself with the state, you’ll end up feeling the consequences sooner or later,” she explains.
“Another lesson learned is that we can’t understand the present without dealing with our history. Even some of those women who were tortured during the reign of Saddam Hussein say today that at least they were given the chance to educate themselves during his regime in the 1970s,” tells Nadje Al-Ali
“And in relation to Egypt as it is today, I believe that the abstract discussions about how repressive to women Islamic law actually is are uninteresting. What is interesting, however, is what these laws would actually mean in practice, what conditions need to arise for them to be adopted – and who holds the power to shape them.”