As any scientist will tell you, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the same is true of political movements.
Five years ago, the Arab world witnessed an unprecedented explosion of protest and political action. A revolutionary wave, starting in Tunisia, spread across the region, unleashing a sense of hope and potential. For the first time in many societies, women joined with men on the streets to demand their rights. It appeared that women were carving themselves a new space in public life.
Women across the Arab region quickly became protesters, activists and powerful advocates for greater freedoms, challenging the status quo.
But these actions have been met with equal and sometimes overwhelming ferocity by the forces of reaction. Optimism gave way to uncertainty, and too often it has been women that had been hit the hardest by the conservative backlash.
Across the region women are seeing the gains they thought they had secured wiped out, and the emergence of new and greater threats to their rights, freedoms and safety. Where civil order has broken down entirely - in civil war as in Syria, or in areas of Iraq under the control of groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra - women have found themselves disproportionately targeted by sexual and physical violence and intimidation. But a more insidious threat affecting women much more widely is the decreasing opportunities available to them to campaign for their rights.
In Libya, women had quickly joined the demonstrations against the regime, protesting side-by-side with men outside the courthouse in Benghazi. During the transition that followed the end of the civil war, women’s groups secured significant improvements to the electoral laws, increasing the minimum levels of women’s participation, as well as leading campaigns for disarmament. However, as the transitional institutions faltered and the country fell into instability, it was women who suffered disproportionately.
Having risen in prominence as leading democratic campaigners, high-profile women became the target of threats and acts of violence, with two leading women politicians assassinated. Now, the militias have spread their campaign of intimidation online, targeting women activists with sophisticated tactics to undermine their credibility in their own communities.
Social media has been a vital space in which women could organise themselves like never before. Facebook and Twitter allowed activists to reach huge new audiences, building consensus and constituencies. Pioneering groups like the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace have used the internet to challenge the narrative of the militias and extremist groups. Now the Web and social media are being turned against them.
In Syria, where the peace process has now almost completely stalled, the space for women has also nearly diminished altogether. Even when the political process was ongoing, women were frequently pushed to the margins. In both the opposition High Negotiation Committee - where just two of the 34 members were women - and in the regime’s negotiation team, it was male voices that were dominant. Without women at the negotiating table, the women’s agenda has gone undiscussed.
In Egypt, women campaigners had celebrated amendments to the penal code that for the first time criminalised sexual harassment. This landmark saw articles had a clear definition of sexual harassment in public space, within the family, at the workplace and in educational institutions. It was a hugely important victory, especially in light of the wave of sexual assaults that followed in the wake of national street protests.
There has since been a distinct change in political discourse. In October 2016, a prominent member of the Egyptian parliament demanded that women applying to university be subject to virginity tests. That a politician feels able to make such an attack on the dignity of women demonstrates just how precarious the situation is.
The threats to the rights, the freedoms, and the safety of women are perhaps greater now than ever before. In the face of this, women in the region are now organised as never before. A legacy of the 2011 revolutions is the spread of resilient, sustainable and credible women’s groups. These women defy the threats they face on the streets and online to carry on their campaigns for respect, for greater freedom and for their dignity. Rising from the grassroots, they are broad-based, bottom-up coalitions that are a direct reaction to the top-down political and diplomatic processes that have excluded and marginalised women.
This movement within civil society represents the most capable generation of women activists the region has ever seen ― and they will need to be in order to make the most of the shrinking political space in which they find themselves.