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Women in the Middle East and North Africa are Changemakers

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

by Sarah Kouhlani-Nolla

Women Forward International’s Blog Series:

Sarah Kouhlani-Nolla is a WFI Advisor and an alumna of Dr. Kent Davis-Packard’s SAIS Women Lead Practicum Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Kouhlani-Nolla works at the World Bank focusing on Women's Economic Inclusion and Private Sector Development.

I moved to Spain from Morocco when I was 17.  During my first months in-country, a common question I would hear was “Why are Arab women so oppressed? Why do they wear a veil?” All of a sudden, I had become a representative of women in my region, women who were thought of as passive victims of an oppressed regime. And I had to speak for them.

I knew there had been and still was oppression, but my concept of Arab, North African, and Muslim women was quite different. I had always been surrounded by very strong, opinionated women, from my young classmates to my family and friends of my parents. They were well- educated women who had things to say about how their region was evolving, and about their role in society with a clear awareness of their rights. Some wore a veil. Some did not. But they all had something to say.

After I moved to the US to pursue my studies, I, once again, was confronted by the same

question from a professor. I was still uncomfortable with the question but this time, I understood

why. I knew there were problems, but those problems weren’t the whole story. I wished I would

be asked about how women in Morocco, or in the region, were taking the lead in social

movements and pushing for their rights in such oppressive contexts. 

And I am not talking about an illusory reality. Today in 2022, I watch in awe how women in the region are leading societal change. I am a witness, as many other people around the world, to the protests around the killing of Mahsa Amin after her arrest by the morality police in Iran. This roused numerous Iranian women (and men) to challenge the strict rules imposed by the morality police in public spaces.

But the outstanding bravery of Iranian women is not an isolated case of how women are driving societal changes in the region. In August, there were the women-led protests confronting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, demanding “bread, work and freedom” and “justice”; and some weeks ago, more women bravely protested in the streets, showing support to women in Iran. There were the protests in Sudan with the “Kandakat” at the forefront, which, by the way, is not new in Sudan’s history of women’s rights activism. In Kuwait, a ban on a yoga event for women where the “lotus” and “downward facing dog” postures were perceived as indecent, sparked protests of women around the capital. In Egypt and Jordan, the violent murders of students Naira Ashrad in Egypt and Iman Rashid of Jordan, inspired women-led demonstrations on existing gender-based violence in these countries and all over the region. In September of this year, after the death of Meriem, a 14 year-old Moroccan who was raped and subsequently forced to go through an unsafe abortion, Moroccan women demonstrated in front of the Moroccan Parliament demanding the right for safe abortions in case of rape and risk to the mother’s health. 

And this was only 2022.

I am not saying that there are no issues and that these protests do not come because of oppressive political regimes and religious institutions. But I want to shift the perspective, to look at women in the Arab/Muslim world as active changemakers and not passive victims. That instead of people asking me why women are oppressed (which gives power and relevance to the oppression of patriarchal societies), to ask about the feminist movements in these countries and how they are organizing to create positive change.

The bravery of these women – and many others who are part of grassroot-level initiatives that do not always attract media attention – is unseizable, admirable and something that should call our attention.

Source: BBC News

I therefore ask of you, reader, to think of these brave chants and these brave protests whenever you read or hear about Arab and North African women. Do not focus on their appearance (sometimes they are imposed and sometimes they are chosen) but rather listen to what they say, because they have a lot to say. If we look at these women as victims, as passive members of society, we are complicit in the image promoted by oppressive and patriarchal regimes. They want us to look at these women as small, silent, subjected characters. However, our responsibility is to see in them the strength they possess and trust them and support them in the change they are already leading.

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