Far from the media image of passive victims, women in the Middle East were in many ways the driving force behind the recent wave of revolution.
"They were the initiators," said Zahra Langhi, co-founder of the Libyan Women's Platform for Peace. "The wives, mothers daughters of prisoners were the first to protest Gadaffi. They inspired a revolution."
But two years later, what have women of the Middle East gained for the sacrifices made on the front lines of revolution?
A group of women leaders from across the MENA region attempted to answer that very question last week, at a panel hosted by the New America Foundation at New York City's CORE: club. As the period of protest gives way to state-building, many said they’ve seen their interests pushed aside.
Though they played a crucial role in the revolution, women are still fighting for their place at the policymaking table. Many of their male counterparts say addressing women’s issues should wait until after a democratic foundation has been laid.
"The regime is trying to deprive women the right of being involved in building a democratic Egypt," said panelist Azza Kamel. "We shouldn't see women's issues as separate from the need for institution building." Women policymakers are now battling for stronger protections from sexual violence, divorce laws, and other key legislation.
Co-founder of the Syrian Women Making Peace Platform Mouna Ghanem said in Syria, ousting Assad has become the sole focus of many in the opposition. That single-mindedness has meant other goals of the revolution, like gains in gender equality, often go ignored.
The ongoing use of rape as a weapon of war is one of the biggest concerns that has so far gone unaddressed. In Libya, the International Criminal Court found that Muammar Gaddafi had ordered mass rapes and encouraged his soldiers to attack women. In Syria, the International Refugee Committee reports that a significant portion of refugees are women victims of sexual violence.
The panelists recognized the inevitable separation between those that are able to travel to the U.S. to speak (in English) on the ongoing revolution, and the millions of low-income Muslim women protesting beside them. Those voices are too often missing from an international conversation on the future of feminism in the Arab world.
Forgetting their role in the movement does disservice to the grassroots activism happening across the MENA region, Langhi said. “The women who led the Libyan uprising did it from the inside ... seeing them as victimized and uneducated is not helping these women.”
Despite their ongoing struggle, all of the panelists strongly rejected the idea that important battles have not been won. The term “Arab Spring” (in the title of the event) implies a short-term revolution rather than a long-term march toward change, Langhi said. Shifts in thinking have happened on a human level, Kamel said. Women across the Arab world now know the power of their own voice, and their ability to take to the streets and demand representation.
“Rome was not built in 7 days,” said Cairo-based political strategist Hibaaq Osman. “The wall of fear has been broken. The spirit of the revolution is still there.”