Meet the heroic women who sparked the Arab Spring

Many Western pundits would like you to believe that the movement behind the Arab Spring consists of nothing more than a few angry young revolutionaries and an army of bearded Islamists. This is, of course, far from the truth. Revolutionaries of all ages, and all walks of life, have risked their freedom and their lives to bring about change in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, and beyond. Yes, they are angry and many are supporters of Islamist policies, but their messages are diverse and their successes have been staggering.
The Arab Spring, as it has come to be known, has its symbols and its figureheads. Mohammed Boazizi was a Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation as a protest against corruption sparked the “Jasmine Revolution” and eventual overthrow of the Tunisian regime. Khalid Said was a young Egyptian beaten to death by police, becoming a rallying cry that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Hamza Ali Khateeb was the 13 year old Syrian boy who was tortured and killed by police simply for being present at an anti-Assad rally in Deraa. These names captured global attention. And while each was a spark, another force has fanned the flames of revolution throughout the region, a force largely ignored in the Western media: the Arab woman.

Largely assigned the role of being either a victim or a housewife in her native homeland, the international media has overlooked a radical change in the face of revolutionary politics in the Middle East. Names like Wedad Demerdash, Asmaa Mahfouz, Mona Seif, Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakel Karman, and Zainab al-Khawaja have been largely overshadowed by western mainstream media attention on body counts, beards, and bombs. They are mentioned solely in passing as something of interest, but often pushed into the background by media seeking the more sensational story of how Islam is “coming to get you.” They, however, are leaders among thousands of women who are part of the same struggle for political and economic equality that has so enflamed the region.

Egyptian Wedad Demerdash should be counted among the many who sparked the Arab Spring, and did it years before the media caught wind of it. In early 2007, she led a walk out from the factory floor of the Mehalla cotton mill, where she had worked for 23 years. The banned strike action started first with the female employees, who then marched around the mill taunting their male colleagues to be brave enough to join them. In the end, the entire work force went on strike for three days demanding a government promised bonus. On the fourth day, management gave in and paid each employee his or her bonus. Wedad and her colleagues again shook the Egyptian labor force by calling for a general strike across Egypt on April 6, 2008, a strike to demand a national minimum wage. Ultimately successful (though not until 2011), the name of the April 6th movement became a galvanizing force for revolutionaries challenging the Mubarak regime.

Asmaa Mahfouz is a 26-year-old Egyptian woman and one of the founders of the Demerdash inspired April 6th Movement. On January 18, 2011, Asmaa posted a video on Facebook calling for a protest in Cairo for people to “demand freedom, justice, honor and human dignity.” Her impassioned plea, in which she declared that she would stand alone against the Mubarak regime if necessary, led to thousands of people pouring into Tahrir Sq. on January 25th. Asmaa has since been jailed for taking on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF (who ultimately dropped their charges on incitement against her) and is now an outspoken supporter of both the Arab Spring and the nascent Occupy movement in the US.

Mona Seif, an Egyptian cancer research lab worker, is more widely known as a blogger and human rights activist. She grew up in a family of activists and she has continued their legacy. Mona captured the world’s attention with her social media coverage of events in Cairo on January 25th and during the subsequent police crackdown. Mona has since started her own movement taking on the ruling SCAF and their use of military trials and detention against civilians. The No Military Trials movement has been a galvanizing force among Egyptian revolutionaries, but has also taken on the challenge of exposing the SCAF regime’s crimes against detainees. Through written and video testimonies, the Tahrir Diaries seeks to reveal the military’s abuses against the revolution they once claimed to be saving.

Tawakel Karman is probably among the most well known women in the Arab world today. The co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, she is a 33-year-old journalist, politician, human rights activist and mother. Tawakel started her activism in 2005 with the founding of Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) to promote freedom of opinion, expression and democratic rights in her native Yemen. She has routinely led demonstrations against the Saleh regime, even while serving as a member of the Yemeni Shura Council, continuing her fight for human rights from within the opposition party. Karman does not reserve her ire for Sana’a, however; she is an outspoken critic of both the United States and Saudi Arabia for their support of the Saleh regime.

Zainab al-Khawaja is a Bahraini political activist who has become a public figure in the opposition fight against the al-Khalifa government. Zainab has suffered greatly at the hands of the regime. In 2011 alone, her father, husband, brother-in-law and uncle were all imprisoned by the regime and Zainab herself went on a hunger strike to call attention to their plight and that of their fellow political prisoners. More recently, Zainab continued her campaign against the regime, leading to her public arrest and trial. Zainab is once again free from detention and continuing her activism and social media campaign as the Angry Arabiya.

These are, of course, only five of the thousands of women who have joined the growing movement against authoritarianism and stagnation in the Middle East. Their involvement flies in the face of Western assumptions about the role of women in Arab society. Their leadership defines the egalitarianism possible in a new age of social justice in the region and the world. As both women and citizens, like so many before them, they serve as the daily inspiration and fulfillment of Margaret Mead’s belief that a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

(Photo Credit: Lillian Wagdy, Floris van Cauwelaert)

Ted Graham is a Contributer at Aslan Media. This article was originally published on

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