Book Offers Overview of Women’s Growing Influence on Wide Range of Arab Affairs, From Combating Pedophilia to Advocating for LGBTQ Rights

Lynne Rogers
Sudanese protester Alaa Salah, photographed by Lana Haroun.

Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring
Edited by Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad
NYU Press, 2020

In ‘Women Rising: In and Beyond the Arab Spring,” editors Rita Stephan and Mounira M. Charrad compile 40 informative essays that contextualize female activism throughout the Arab world. They characterize women’s participation in the Arab Spring not as a spontaneous moment of resistance but as an extension of previous activism that has continued beyond the Arab Spring. The editors assert that regardless of the shortcomings of the Arab Spring, throughout the Arab world, “citizens now realize the power of collective action: protest and campaigning.” In her foreword, Suad Joseph classifies “Women Rising” as a “volume of hope grounded in history and the lived present.” This collection verifies this hope by breaking the silence and celebrating the reform around gender issues.
The book editors divide the wide-ranging topics of 40 essays into four sections. A tribute to the Jordanian professor Rula Quawas, who was relieved of her Dean position after her class produced a video on sexual harassment, is featured in the book’s first section, “What They Fight For.” The essays span different countries and economic classes, covering activism in the Egyptian working class to Kuwaiti Parliament. While Amal Amireh’s chapter looks at current activism on Palestinian LGBTQ rights, other essays report efforts to include men in the fight against domestic violence in Lebanon, the rising awareness of pedophilia in Morocco, and the prominent role of women in the Arab Spring in Yemen. In one of the most interesting articles, Syrian American poet and novelist Mohja Kahf documents the two creative, non-violence Syrian resistance campaigns in 2012, “Stop the Killing” and “Brides of Freedom.” The “Brides of Freedom” dressed as brides holding signs in the streets pleading for a stop to violence, while in “Stop the Killing,” women dressed in capris and sleeveless tops to hand out flowers. Although her article contains two amazing photographs, like the other articles, Kahf’s notes include Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube addresses, an invaluable asset for educators, budding scholars, and like-minded activists.
The second section, “What They Believe In,” records the changing language in the Tunisian constitution, resistance to sectarianism in Iraq, the role of Algerian feminists in relationship to Bouteflika’s fall, and the continued struggle in Sudan. In an effort at inclusion, a short piece by Syrian Christian Parliament member Maria Saadeh explains her support for change through the governmental process. Another essay identifies the rise of Islamic women’s groups in Syria as a source of solidarity. In another short Syrian piece, Assad Alsaleh, once an admiring student of Buthaina Shabaan, expresses her disappointment in Shabaan’s adoption of the regime’s rhetoric against the demonstrators. A rising example of feminism and Islam co-existing in the tradition of Fatima Mernissi is Asma Mahfouz, the young Egyptian blogger who made the “argument for political activism as a religious obligation to end justice and oppression.” Again Samaa Gamie’s introduction to Asma Mahfouz and her notes and bibliography provide a valuable path for the like-minded.
The third section, “How They Express Agency,” historicizes women’s use of cyberspace for transnational political activism and examines bloggers who find faith in Sufism. On the streets, women established the first “above ground” LGBTQ organization in Lebanon, while others established schools, journals, and non-combative support in Southern Yemen. While the Syrian “Brides of Freedom” donned bridal gowns, Allia Elmahy, an Egyptian art student, posted nude selfies to “wrest the female nude from the realm of passive aesthetics,” posing the question, “What is my body-my life-worth to you?” Another Egyptian artist, Bahia Shebab, turned to graffiti to resist sexual aggression.
The fourth section, “How They Use Space to Mobilize,” continues this academic straddle between digital and public space and includes some personal journals and reminiscences of individual experiences. One essay describes one Libyan family and their eight-year quiet but determined quest to find their son, who disappeared and became one of the 1,269 Abu Salim Prison massacre victims. In their dedicated persistence, these families forced the government to form a Ministry of Martyrs and Missing Persons’ Families’ Affairs. In an informative essay, “Mapping the Egyptian Women’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaigns,” women use their phones to draw a HarassMap, which collects data on harassment and also provides resources for the victims. A second essay on Egyptian graffiti contains more photos and analyses the sense of power radiating from the women’s gaze.
The final and briefest section, “How They Organize,” reinforces the main ideas of the previous sections while offering more examples of women working in education, government, and religious groups, all to change consciousnesses and help avoid violence. The essay on women driving in Saudi Arabia is engaging as the government moved from asserting that women driving “affects the ovaries and rolls up the pelvis” to its recent admission that “female driving is now considered permissible by religious scholars.”
Stephan and Charrab’s “Women Rising: In And Beyond the Arab Spring” covers a vast array of women’s activism throughout the historical, geographical, and virtual landscape of the Arab world and the diaspora. While academic, the essays are readily accessible and provide a welcomed reaffirmation that women have been and successfully continue to work for change and are a much-needed resource for area scholars and those who want to know what women can accomplish.

This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.
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