Arab women's rights, a genuine lifestyle revolution?

Women protesting in Cairo in 2012.
Women protesting in Cairo in 2012.

Arab women played a leading role in the protest movement of 2011. Since then, ongoing social transformation has had a considerable impact on their lives. What is their assessment of the situation ten years on? Claudia Mende spoke to women from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco

By Claudia Mende

Fatema El Shafee still remembers 2011 as if it were yesterday. At the time, she was in Assiut in the Nile Valley, some 400 kilometres south of Cairo, right in the middle of the demonstrations. For the now 54-year-old engineer (the name has been changed), the Arabellion was also a rebellion against traditional role models.

"Before 2011, Egyptian women didn't play a role in either politics or social life. Sometimes we weren't even allowed to determine our own lives," she says. The life of an Egyptian woman of her generation, she says, consisted of getting married, having children and earning money. She was expected to spend her income exclusively on the family's needs, doing all the housework and taking care of the children's education needs. "All this without any recognition or say in the matter. Then in 2011, the younger women said, that's it, we have rights too and you men finally have to value us."

The Arabellion was not very successful politically, but it did initiate social change: problems that had previously been hushed up, such as violence towards women, came to light; women demanded sexual self-determination, an end to male paternalism, and more political participation. Family images and gender roles are changing. Arguably, the biggest change is happening in the minds of the women themselves.

In 2011, Fatema El Shafee, a single mother, overrode her family's concerns and went demonstrating with her two sons. Her family, she says, hated her for it. "To them, I was completely crazy. The fact that I took my two boys to a demonstration where we could have been killed, arrested or harassed, they couldn't understand. They had such outdated ideas in their heads."

"Tunisian women wanted more"

For Asma Gatri from the Tunisian town of Kef on the border with Algeria, on the other hand, taking to the streets in her hometown in 2011 was not a big step. "We Tunisian women already had our place in the public sphere before the revolution. But we wanted more," says the now 29-year-old. Gatri is an environmental engineer who advises companies on sustainability issues. Before starting her own business in 2017, she worked for a nongovernmental organisation that supports rural women in resisting violence. "The issue of violence against women concerns me a lot".

Here in particular, for all the problems, progress is also evident. Previously a social taboo, the problem has been in the public eye since 2011. Activists are pushing for better legal protection, women are breaking their silence and denouncing perpetrators, making their fates public.

Egyptian women protest in Cairo against sexual violence (photo: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)
Auch in Ägypten sind die Zeiten passé, in denen sexuelle Belästigung unhinterfragt zum Frausein dazu gehörte. Während der Arabellion demonstrierten Frauen, wie hier auf dem Bild in Kairo, für ihr Recht, sich ohne Belästigung im öffentlichen Raum bewegen zu können. 2014 definierte ein ägyptisches Gesetz erstmals sexuelle Belästigung überhaupt als Straftat. 2018 verurteilte auch die Al-Azhar-Universität in Kairo, die wichtigste Institution des sunnitischen Islam, sexuelle Belästigung - und zwar ausdrücklich unabhängig davon, wie eine Frau gekleidet ist. "Das ist wichtig, denn häufig müssen sich Betroffene anhören, sie seien an den Übergriffen selbst schuld und hätten sie durch ihre Kleidung oder ihr Verhalten provoziert“, schreibt Claudia Mende.

In Jordan, Yemen and Lebanon, misogynistic laws that allowed rapists to go unpunished if their victims consented to marriage were abolished after 2016. Penalties for so-called "honour killings" were toughened. Perpetrators now face long prison sentences, and in some cases vulnerable women receive better protection, for example in women's shelters.

The legal situation in Tunisia has also improved. For Asma Gatri, "Law 58" represents a milestone in women's rights. It was passed unanimously by the national parliament in Tunis in 2017 and criminalises all forms of violence against women. It also regulates how victims can access their rights and get help when in doubt. "Law 58 was fundamental for us," she says. "Because of the revolution, women are much freer today." In the past, if a woman was sexually harassed during an appointment at the bank, for example, she had few options to fight back. That's different today, she says.

Admittedly, in surveys, two-thirds of Tunisian women still say they experience sexual harassment. Society also continues to tend to blame victims for such incidents. But young, well-educated women like Asma Gatri are no longer willing to accept assault without complaint, and that makes a big difference.

Gatri herself says she does not accept sexual harassment. At one point, she even physically fought back, she said. "The law protects us, and there are also many organisations to turn to now."

Too little is being done in rural areas

In Egypt, too, the days when sexual harassment was simply part of being a woman are long gone. Before 2011, people didn't talk about violence in their families or on the streets, says Fatema El Shafee. "In the meantime, awareness has definitely changed in Cairo and the big cities." But she says it will take time for that to trickle down to small towns and rural areas. "In rural Upper Egypt, not much has happened yet," he said. Violence in families is widespread there, he said, and "honour killings" also occur. This also has to do with the difficult economic situation. There is often abject poverty, the majority of people have to get by on less than two U.S. dollars a day, and the economic situation has deteriorated further in recent years.

Amal Kenzari (photo: private)
Entrepreneur Amal Kenzari from Casablanca embodies a young generation of confident women who pursue their own goals in life and don't let anyone take them away. Men in Morocco do interfere in the personal lives of women, for example, they want to determine how they dress and control what they do in their free time. "But honestly, I don't understand these women who always present themselves as victims without rights and let themselves be talked into everything," the 28-year-old says. "You have to take responsibility for your own life"

In 2014, an Egyptian law defined sexual harassment as a criminal offence for the first time ever. In 2018, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most important institution of Sunni Islam, also condemned sexual harassment - and explicitly regardless of how a woman is dressed. This is important, because those affected often have to hear that they themselves are to blame for the assaults and that they provoked them through their clothing or behaviour.

Social change is also reflected in the situation of divorced women or single parents. As a divorced woman and single mother, Amal experienced social pressure. "There was a stigma to being divorced. You just feel terribly bad." She says her family pushed her not to go out alone; however, she didn't accept that. "Because I was always working, my family couldn't get their way."

Today, she says, young women move to another city to study or live alone - at least in the big cities. They marry later, some not at all, challenging old role patterns in Egypt that were long taken for granted.

"Taking responsibility for your own life"

Morocco had already introduced a more modern family law in 2004 that enshrines equal rights for men and women. In 2016, Islamic family law specified it once again, stating that men and women are allowed to make decisions in the family on an equal footing. The man is no longer considered the head of the family. In practice, this may not yet be the case in the conservative Moroccan society, but legally such regulations are real milestones.

In Morocco, husbands, brothers and fathers do interfere in the personal lives of women, for example, they want to determine how they dress, whether they wear the headscarf or not, and control what they do in their free time. She can see very well that many Moroccan women struggle with this interference in their lives, says Amal Kenzari from Casablanca. "But honestly, I don't understand these women who always present themselves as victims without rights and let themselves be talked into everything. You have to take responsibility for your own life." Kenzari, 28, has set up a social enterprise with a friend. She designs leather goods made by Berber women from the Casablanca area and sells them in Morocco and Europe.

Kenzari embodies a young generation of confident women who pursue their own goals in life and don't let anyone take them away. "My father has always encouraged me," Kenzari says, "but he doesn't interfere in my life."


The young entrepreneur is unmarried and heavily involved in her career. The question of whether she could do the same as a married woman is on her mind. In business, being a woman definitely has its advantages, she says. "There are many schemes for young female entrepreneurs like me. I get support that men don't get in that form." Asma Gatri from Tunisia agrees. But both women are reluctant to talk about marriage and starting a family, "because we live in a society that puts all the housework on women," says Amal Kenzari, "and all this is in addition to their jobs. It's very difficult to balance family and career."

Men and housework: a difficult chapter

In Tunisia, there has been a lot of discussion about the division of labour in families since 2011; the old distribution of roles is being put to the test. "Women have started to demand that household and child-rearing tasks, as well as the family's income, be shared fairly. There is a change in mentality here," says Asma Gatri. In her family, at least, the tasks are shared fairly, and her brothers also have to help out around the house.

Of course, there are still conservatives who oppose these new ideas, but "things are moving forward". Fatema El Shafee agrees that the situation in Egypt is far more difficult for women than in Tunisia. She sees a new awareness among the younger generation, including her own sons who have long since grown up, that women and men are equal. "Women of my generation had no say, after all. Young women are simply demanding more."

Claudia Mende

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