The Arab Spring and Girl’s Education

September 1, 2011

By Malak Zaalouk, Professor of Practice, The American University of Cairo

Revolution and gender
It is no secret that the history of revolutions and liberation movements in the Arab region has manifested double standards with regard to the situation of women. While women were clearly in the forefront of national liberation movements in some of the most significant anti-colonial struggles, they were rapidly pushed back to their underprivileged ranks once the battle was won. Revolutionaries were always able to explain that gender issues only resulted in divisiveness and that the national cause had supremacy. Moreover gender issues were presented as a luxury and a cause largely imported from the west. Women had pulled out their veils to better lead demonstrations in the streets of major capitals in the Arab world. In mountainous and rural areas many women had carried arms, been part of liberation armies and often held leadership position. Once the struggles rescinded women were encouraged to re wear their veils as these now became significant symbols of national identities. We of course realize that they also reinforced a number of other identities in the configuration of renewed power relations between men and women.

The Arab Spring: Young women and social media
Again during the Arab Spring movements, we saw how young women were not only deeply involved but for example in the case of Egypt they actually ignited the whole youth coalition moving to Tahrir square on the 25 January and even in prior occasions had moved various labour movements in Mahalla as a prelude to the January revolution. Half way through that glorious magical moment where young boys and girls sat shoulder to shoulder chanting and demonstrating against the old regime, a renewed attitude of exclusion reigned where young women were again being intimidated and asked to withdraw from the public sphere and stay home.

It is time we rethought our strategies for UNGEI advocacy and also it is important that we position UNGEI well within the demands made by the various spring Arab groups on rights, women’s empowerment, equity and social justice, democracy and the fight against poverty. Gender and poverty must be strongly linked. Evidence must be provided to show that UNGEI is indeed a very powerful method of promoting social justice and fighting poverty.

The new democracies and girls’ education
Many of the budding spring movements will move into more stabilized and institutionalized modalities in the years to come. Social networks promise to continue being a powerful vehicle for organization, networking, and freedom of expression, mobilization and action. This arena is one where UNGEI needs to be prominently featuring by both male and female youth. The time is now for ensuring that UNGEI features in many platforms of election as any other related issue to empowerment, poverty eradication, equity and democracy. The spring movements have demonstrated to the world that youth; both males and females, are striving to create new social contracts where empowerment is the foundation for civic engagement. Girls’ education is a critical cornerstone of not only women’s empowerment but community empowerment at large and hence must be an integral part of the new social order and set of priorities.

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