The Middle East has become a key place in the battle to negotiate the role of women. Indeed, during the Arab Spring revolutions, women actively and publicly participated. This was a striking feature, as many of the countries in the region had and continue to actively regulate the private and public lives of women. As revolution gives way to transition, questions remain as to how these newfound realities will incorporate gender in the state-building and reintegration processes, as well as in economic development and the rule of law. Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, a grassroots development organization that has helped women globally access social and economic opportunities, shares with the Journal her reflections on the future. Having interviewed women activists over the past few months, Salbi explores the vital role of women activists in the revolutions, and argues that we cannot talk about the stability and future of these countries without recognizing the "Third Way" and the moderating and inclusive voices of these women.
The political participation of women is transforming the Middle East; as such, the role of women in that process is now part of the political discussion in the Arab and Muslim world. A fundamental struggle between two ideologies is at the core of the political tensions resulting from the revolutions. God is at the heart of how this ideological war is being expressed, and women have become the battlefield. Whoever controls the landscape of their role will set the future direction of the Middle East. For the past few months, I have interviewed women from all walks of life in the region. (1) What I have found is that these women are not passive players. Their role and voices go beyond the immediate fight for rights. In many ways, they are on the front line of the discussions about the true meaning of democracy and what it takes to build a functioning state with true freedoms. It is also about women's agency, and how they participate in the political transitions and reassert their rights.
The political influence and regional impact of Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Qaddafi of Libya, the key countries that underwent major political transformations over the past two years, cannot be generalized. Each was very different in their political rule and the repressive policies they used to curtail basic freedoms. Ben All ran a moderate regime, while Qaddafi cut Libya off from all forms of access to knowledge on subjects varying from the sciences to the arts. Mubarak vacillated between giving and suppressing individual freedom of expression. Although NGOs were allowed to operate in Egypt, they were often raided by the secret service and police, who confiscated their material and imprisoned their leadership. For all their differences, these regimes perceived their policies as necessary for controlling the rise of political Islam and for promoting a modern version of a Muslim society. That often meant political suppression of even benign acts such as going to the mosque in the early hours of dawn for morning prayer, due to suspicions arising from the possibility of individuals joining fundamentalist political groups. A member of the Ennahda party in Tunisia told me how her political awareness and activism started when she decided to wear a hijab. In an interview in late 2012 in Tunisia, Monia explained, "My story starts with my hijab; if you wore it, you were immediately associated with the Islamic wave." She was later imprisoned for organizing what the regime called an "unlawful gathering." Women, like Monia, faced the same political suppression as men if they showed their interest in religion through certain religious practices. Many went to prison and faced torture...