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10 years on from the Arab Spring, we must remember the women

Soon it will be a decade since the smoke from fire raging in Tunisia reached Cairo, the city I call home. 

In December 2010, a trickle of protest in a small city in Tunis quickly became a flood, engulfing North Africa and the Middle East almost entirely, becoming known as the Arab Spring.

As a Somalian activist committed to securing greater rights and freedoms for women and girls, the energy and determination of the young people leading it reminded me of Somalia’s revolt against our own dictator nearly 20 years earlier. 

The ongoing impact of the 2007-8 global financial crisis had hit hard, and many protestors had grown up in countries led by the same regime, and often the same man for decades – dictators and authoritarians who had never faced a fair election. The young people of the Arab region felt they had no future, so they took the streets to protest. 

The story we must remember from that time, however – one it has been convenient for many to forget – is that from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, it was often women who were leading the protests and were the most powerful and persuasive voices.

Women like Amal Basha from Yemen, a prominent advocate for human rights, who opened the eyes of the world to violations carried out during the Yemeni revolution, she reported on them from the streets.

Like Mouna Ghanem, who co-founded a movement – the Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace (SWFP) – and became a powerful voice for peace and women’s participation.

And Zahra’ Langhi, a peace advocate who formed one of the first campaigning groups for Libyan women, the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP).

Of course it was women who were front and centre – so many had nothing to lose. 

Women were not only facing the same economic hardship as men in the late 00s due to the worldwide economic downturn, but they weren’t seen as equal in the eyes of the law in most Arab countries at the time. They could not receive an equal share of inheritance for instance, and, in Yemen, their testimony in court counted only for half of a male witness’.

From girls excluded from getting an education, to women politicians denied the chance to stand for election, they were discriminated against in almost every aspect of life with all sorts of violence permitted against them.

Up until 2017, in Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia, a convicted rapist could walk free if he married his victim.

The protests that started in 2010 offered a chance to address these injustices and inequalities, but it was chaotic. To stabilise and smooth the course of the revolutions, it was clear that the network of women’s rights groups I belonged to had to help.

I first met Libyan human rights lawyer and activist Salwa Bugaighis in Cairo in October 2011. I was immediately enthralled: she was brilliant, articulate, wise, funny, passionate, and so stylish.

Salwa had a vision for her country of democracy, justice and equality, and even through the suffocating grip of former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, she had managed to become an internationally recognised advocate for Libyan women. 

Together, we joined a group of others to launch the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace (LWPP), a group that put women’s rights on the national agenda and successfully lobbied for increased women’s political participation.

Salwa’s activism went in tandem with her political aspirations, which saw her resign from one of Libya’s governing councils in protest at the poor representation of women.

The dreams of a peaceful and democratic Libya were becoming more distant as the country slipped toward civil war – Salwa, though, kept her faith. On the day of the last general election to be held in Libya, 25 June 2014, Salwa urged her supporters to the polls.

As she returned home from casting her own ballot, four armed men stormed in after her, shooting Salwa in the head, and abducting her husband Essam never to be seen again.

Nothing has ever hit me like her murder. It felt as though they had not murdered one person, but the hopes and dreams – my hope and dreams – of women across the Arab region.

Salwa was the embodiment of so much of what we had spent years campaigning for and showed undeniably that there were women who had the skills, determination and the courage to build equal and just societies in our troubled lands. Her murder proved that there were forces who would stop at nothing to crush them. 

There are thousands of stories of women who rose to the occasion during the Arab Spring and were prepared to grab the opportunities it presented with both hands. So when I look back over the last 10 years, I see the positive potential for so much.

From the initial uncertainty and hope of the Arab Spring came the incredible energy of women struggling toward shared goals, knowing full well the scale of the task but finding strength in our solidarity. 

As time passed, however, the odds against us mounted, and in its wake has come an appalling sense of loss and devastation. So many women were beaten, raped and sexually assaulted during the revolution.

Women like Mona Eltahawy, sexually assaulted and beaten on the streets of Cairo. Or Loujain al-Hathloul, one of many voices for women’s rights imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for their activism.

Only last month, another outspoken Libyan woman – Hanan al-Barassi – was shot dead in Benghazi. 

To this end, no one would argue that the revolutions lived up to the promise of an end to corruption and for people to have a say in how they are governed. Conflicts rage on, authoritarians tighten their grip, hard-won gains are under threat.

Influential lobbies in parliaments plot to reverse progress, moving to abolish protections for women, like reducing the legal age of marriage to just nine years old, as was proposed in Iraq in November 2017.

However, there has been progress, especially for women.

It was female voters in Tunisia who became a critical electoral bloc and secured a victory for Beji Caid Essebsi in the 2014 elections. Under his leadership, the country passed some of the most progressive laws to protect women and girls from violence ever seen in the Arab region.

Though he has been criticised for not going far enough, it has demonstrated that progress can be made through women’s activism and political engagement.

Women’s groups have mobilised to abolish discriminatory laws.   

Women like Salwa Bugaighis dedicated their lives to achieving dignity; they saw a chance to build the future they wanted for themselves. For me, this is the legacy of the Arab Spring. 

Salwa’s message of justice was so powerful that her enemies knew they had nothing to counter it but fear and violence. She led the way to ending discrimination and violence against women and girls –  now we just have to find them, support them, and protect them.

I remain hopeful, and defiant. Joined by a new generation of brilliant young women, I and others like me are determined to learn the lessons of the Arab Spring to bring our communities with us to an equal and just future.

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