I’ve been speaking a lot with students in my Women in Islam and Gender and Islamic Activism classes about the ways in which women living in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia have become a lot more visible as social actors in the public sphere. And I tell them that this is not a new phenomenon: women have been important social actors in the MENA, Africa and Asia for a long time. There are a lot more women judges, activists, politicians and religious leaders out there today who are recognized — within their own communities and nations and beyond — as leaders in their respective fields than perhaps at any other time in history. But for every Shirin Ebadi, Zainah Anwar,Benazir Bhutto or Su’ad Saleh, there are a lot more women out there that are largely unknown by the wider world, and largely ignored by the mainstream Western media.
With all of the media attention focused on the transformations in the MENA since the Arab spring began in 2011, I have to wonder why so little of it has focused on the role that women have played in bringing about these changes. And this goes to the heart of the question that is most on my mind these days: where are all the women leaders of the Arab Spring?
While Tawakkul Karman, the Yemeni journalist, human rights activist and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient, dubbed the “Mother of the Revolution”, has been widely recognized by the global press for her leadership, I have to think hard when asked to name another Muslim female leader of the Arab Spring as prominent as her. And yet, they are there. They are not nameless faces and shadowy figures whose job it is to merely stand behind and support the men in their push for freedom, but they are right out in front, taking the same risks, clamoring for their rights, and demanding the same justice and recognition. They are women like Asmaa Mahfouz and Nadine Wahab of Egypt, Lina Ben Mhenni and Amira Yahyaoui of Tunisia, Najla Elmangoush and Amina Mogherbi of Libya. They are the many women who have been working behind the scenes to question and change the status quo, women whose husbands, sons, and fathers lost their lives during the revolutions and who are supporting their families themselves, women who fund raise, engage in relief efforts, women who support and encourage men to fight on, and women who challenge the men who tell them that now they can go back to their kitchens. They are women who do not need us to save them or show them how to make the most of a revolution, but they do deserve our attention and recognition.
They are out there and they are transforming their neighborhoods, communities, nations, and potentially, the world. Are we paying enough attention?