The Women’s Intifada

The Arabic word for revolution, thawra, which is in the form of the feminine tense, undoubtedly reflects the nature of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has given rise to activists such as Egypt’s Asmaa Mahfouz and Yemen’s Noble Peace Prize Winner Tawakkul Karman, who were vital players in the toppling of regimes. It is unlikely that Arab women will give up their newfound roles, and will in fact demand more rights, power, and a louder voice. Women all over the Arab world have voiced their concerns, sought their identity, and urged for greater rights in the most public manners, often using the Internet as their medium to do so.

One such example is the popular blog, “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World” that reaches over ninety thousand people on Facebook alone. Intifada, the Arabic word for “uprising,” is also in the form of the feminine tense, truly reflecting the role of women in creating political and social change. The page contains articles, images, and blog posts dedicated to uniting women worldwide under the banner of empowerment. We had a chance to interview Yalda Younes, a founder of the blog. Can you give a brief overview of your platform, and what you hope to achieve, as a woman’s rights activist, with your blog and Facebook page?
Yalda Younes: We hope to empower women, expose taboos, reveal the lies and arrogant hypocrisy of our patriarchal society, encourage freedom of speech, endorse the freedom to believe and not believe, to practice and not practice. We want to give voice to those who are being silenced; we want to shame the aggressor and not the victim. We want to inform ourselves, each other and the rest of the world of the unjust and sexist laws that exist in Arab countries. We want to create enough pressure to force the abolishment of discriminatory and violent laws, and institute laws that instead protect women from violence and ensure their equality. Our platform gives a voice to every woman who wishes to express herself. We wish to show that we do not wait for approval, authorization or external help to act: this is our battle and we are strong enough to fight it if we stand together.

How and where did your blog originate? Did you think that you’d have over 50,000 supporters and readers worldwide?
The Facebook page was created in October 2011, after the first democratic elections were held in post-revolution Arab countries. We could no longer tolerate the things the dictatorships excused. The Arab revolutions occurred in the name of freedom and dignity, and yet women’s rights were still being kept in a drawer. We were fed up of hearing, “Now is not the time to talk about women’s rights; there are other priorities.” By creating this Facebook page, we have refused to resign ourselves to defeat and instead, chose to continue battling fearlessly for our full rights. We will not wait for “good timing” or authorization, we will not censor ourselves, and we will not compromise.

Another intention of the Facebook page was also to honor the women who had participated in the revolutions, such as Samira Ibrahim, Tawakkul Karman, Fadwa Suleiman, Zeinab El Khawaja; they inspired the world with their courage and determination. The Arab Spring also succeeded in creating a communion between the citizens of Arab countries – something our leaders have always failed to do. The Arab League is an embarrassing joke. Not one Arab state had shown its solidarity to another in this way before the revolutions. With the revolution, suddenly Arabs from every country were following and supporting other countries’ revolts. Solidarity is strength; it is our hope, this is our future. We should learn from it, reflect upon what happened, and continue building upon it. The unifying effects of the revolution inspired me to create the Facebook page, and gave life to its title: our goal is to lead a common fight for women’s rights in all Arab countries, independent of our cultural differences and our political regime. Ours is a human battle for human rights. The Arab world has had enough violence and oppression; it’s time to rethink the concept of freedom, which starts, above all, in the liberation of the human being.

In many countries touched by the Arab Spring (i.e. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya) what sort of role would you like to see women take in rebuilding the post-revolutionary nations? How do you think that the uprising of women in the Arab world can help?
Women should be entitled to the same rights and duties as men as they are full citizens, and not merely a category called “women.” Women should be equally present in the political, economic and educational scenes of a country.

All around the world (and not only in the Arab world), the patriarchal system has been installed for so long that women would find it impossible to rise to positions of political power if quota laws did not exist in some countries. For example in France, which has never seen a woman president, this is the first time we have a parity government, thanks to the awareness of François Hollande about the importance of women governing equally side by side with men. Our ambition is progressive; we support the 50% quota system for women all around the world, as well as in parity governments.

We also aim to change the social acceptability of and silence towards certain attitudes like discrimination, harassment, rape, domestic violence and other types of violence.

On October 1st 2012, on the occasion of the first anniversary of our page, we decided to launch a campaign that would put faces to our demands, and show that many Arab countries suffer from the same problems. Such problems are rooted in social mentality, and are independent of the political regime in place. We also want to continue building up the inter-Arab solidarity that began during the Arab Spring. We want to empower women and encourage everyone to be active in our cause.

We have a campaign on Facebook and Twitter called “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because…”, where we ask people (both women and men) to send a picture of themselves with the reason why they need the uprising. The campaign aims to highlight the various kinds of discrimination women face in the Arab world (social, economic, political, judiciary…). Being aware of the injustice we suffer is the first step to counter it. The campaign also hopes to point out the fact that women in our region share many struggles. We could then create a common ground for feminist activism, overcoming the borders of the states and building on from each other’s experiences. The campaign lasted for three weeks and received 65 different stories that encouraged more women to participate and share their stories, helping them realize that silence is a self-inflicted punishment and impunity for the aggressor.

Do you think that the image of Muslim women, who are regarded as oppressed and voiceless, will change as a result of the Arab Spring and blog such as your own?
Our “image” in the West is not our main concern. We often see actions stimulated by the wish to show a better image, but our mission is the opposite. We want to break down the false images and clichés about the so-called “protective mentalities towards women” in the Arab world to show how in fact they are being discriminated, patronized, mistrusted and infantilized. But when doing that we are addressing the men and women in the Arab world, because here is where the change should come from, and not from outside.

On the other hand, our page aims at showing how strong women in our region are, despite the difficult conditions imposed to them, whether they are Muslims, Christians, Copts, or Atheists. We don’t work from the angle of religion – patriarchy and misogyny have no religion. This is a secular page that considers men and women as equal, with no religious discrimination or differentiation.

What type of role has social media played in empowering and connecting women? In what ways can women use social media to advocate for their rights?
Collaboration, solidarity, shared experiences, learning from each other, meeting new activists… all these things lead to empowerment, and social media offers this. It is a platform of free speech, where each citizen can speak for herself or himself without the media hijacking and manipulating the discourse. Each citizen has the power to change the world by acting on the injustice surrounding him or her. Change must come from us; we shouldn’t wait for it to come from above or from outside. Social media gives us a voice and the capacity to interact.

For example, the “Tell Your Story” campaign that we launched last November informed the world about the violence and suffering that women in the Arab world are going through, with no protection of the law, but it also proved their strength, solidarity and awareness. From this point on, change is possible. It only takes commitment to the cause and hard work.

Do you think certain issues are too sensitive to expose? How do you bring to issues that are seen as more “taboo” in society such as rape, and sexual assault?
The issues you mentioned are those that are most discussed in the page, because unfortunately lots of women have gone through rape or sexual assault. Our movement has become a platform to express the suffering and fight for it to end. Silence is the best way to protect the aggressors/ oppressors, so we must put an end to endorsing the pain and accepting it. We must speak out, break taboos, and never self-censor. Those who should be ashamed are the rapists, and not the raped ones, nor their families! The social mentality must change, and we must make them change.

What developments in women’s rights would you like the see in 2013? Where do you hope to see your blog in the year ahead?
There are a lot of projects for 2013! We are currently working on launching a new campaign that aims to inform people about laws discriminating women all around the Arab world, and to put pressure on the Arab world to change those laws. We are also planning on writing a book, the content of which cannot be revealed yet. We are creating a calendar with important dates regarding women in all Arab countries. We’re also planning shame campaigns attacking regimes that discriminate against women. We’re developing our visual identity and will be having t-shirts and stickers printed and distributed all around. We’re collaborating with people to create a movie, a documentary, an exhibition. The list goes on and keeps growing, as our team keeps enlarging and enriching the Intifada.