Women and the Arab uprisings: 8 'agents of change' to follow

Story highlights

  • Women were at the forefront of the Arab Spring protests
  • Now, some fear that women's rights are de-prioritized
  • Here are 8 short profiles of women who are continuing the charge
Women have been at the forefront of the uprisings that started in Tunisia and soon cascaded west to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and across the Gulf. Over the past year, Arab women have relished the promise of a change -- and found a new sense of equality long suppressed under sclerotic patriarchal regimes.
But many women activists fear that promise is now receding; and that women's rights are being left on the political back-burner. In Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections -- largely seen as the nation's first free and fair vote -- only nine of the newly elected 498 parliamentarians are women.
Popular Egyptian activist blogger Dalia Zaida says shortly before the elections, she conducted an informal poll of 1,400 voters across Cairo and found not a single person, male or female, who said he or she would vote for a female presidential candidate. Women across the region worry about this growing chasm between the reality of women's unyielding participation on the streets and their stark absence from the formal political process.
Some secular female activists also fear that the rise of Islamist parties, whatever their professed moderation, will curtail their political space.
In Egypt, women have faced brutal treatment at the hands of the caretakers of the revolution -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Activists describe its handling of protests as incompetent at best, and malevolent at its worst. Back in March, when the military forcibly expelled protestors from Tahrir Square -- the epicenter of pro-democracy protests -- 18 female activists were arrested, 17 of whom say they were forced to undergo "virginity tests," (the military has claimed the tests were done to protect the army from possible allegations of rape).
Recently, hundreds of women from across the Middle East attended a conference in Egypt to discuss how technology and the Internet, namely social media, can be used to protect and advance women's goals in the region. The Egyptian-American pundit Mona Eltahaway moderated the conference, taking the stage with both arms in casts. In November, she was sexually assaulted and beaten by soldiers near Tahrir Square. The plaster didn't preclude her from articulating her message: "The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is share her experience as if it matters."
As countries across the region struggle to dismantle inequitable systems and build civil society anew, these are just a few of the female "agents of change" who are sharing their experiences and have no intention of backing down.
Manal al Sharif (Saudi Arabia)
Follow on Twitter: @manal_alsharif
Last May, 32-year-old information security consultant Manal al Sharif got into her car in Saudi Arabia for a joyride -- of sorts. And because, simply by driving, she was breaking the law. As her friend recorded her behind the wheel, al Sharif harangues Saudi Arabia's notoriously strict gender laws. She posted the video online the next day, helping to catalyze the "#Women2Drive" movement of Saudi women who openly defied the ban on driving. She was promptly detained in jail for nine days. Al Sharif has since expanded her campaign to "My rights, my dignity," which fights for women's right to drive and the annulment of male guardianship (under this tradition, Saudi women must obtain permission from their guardian -- usually a father or husband -- to work, travel, study, or marry) among other things. "We're half the society, but we give birth to and raise the other half," al Sharif says. "So we are actually all of society."