Woman as Reason: Arab Spring and women after revolution

August 3, 2011

From the July-August 2011 issue of News & Letters

by Terry Moon

The time is now for the movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and other countries engaged in revolt, to make sure there’s no repetition of what happened to women after the revolutions in Algeria and Iran. In the Algerian revolution, 1954-1962, hundreds of thousands of women resisted the French, and many died in the process. Algerian women were the backbone of the movement: acting as spies, helping with communications and food, caring for the wounded–every aspect of revolutionary life. Yet to this day Algerian women are treated as less than human. And when an Islamist insurgency plunged the country into a brutal civil war lasting through the 1990s, Islamists targeted women first.

In Iran, too, women were equal partners in the revolution, yet the first act of counter-revolution was Khomeini’s demand for women to wear the veil. When thousands marched in the streets on International Women’s Day 1979 chanting, “At the dawn of freedom we have no freedom!” most of the Left did not support them, but joined in throwing stones at them. They didn’t see that the women were sounding the alarm that the Iranian revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran was being transformed into its opposite.


This history is why Marx’s concept of Revolution in Permanence, made explicit for our age by Raya Dunayevskaya, has tremendous importance. Be it Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Syria, women made sure they are speakers and leaders. They transformed human relationships by creating new ones on the spot: in Egypt’s Tahrir Square; in Yemen’s Change Square and by coming out in the thousands when President Saleh accused women protesters of being against Islam. In Syria, despite Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to murder thousands in the street, 2,000 women and children blocked roads, shouting, “We will not be humiliated.”

The boldness of the women, the depth of the change they desire, can be measured in their militancy and eagerness to be part of history-changing movements. Unfortunately, it can also be measured in how the first moves of counter-revolution, as in Iran and Algeria, are a direct attack against them. In Egypt, women who came out to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 were met by a huge crowd of men who screamed at them, grabbed and groped them, tore their clothes and made the women, literally, run for their lives.

Not satisfied with locking women out of decision-making bodies, on the next day the military arbitrarily cleared the Square of protestors, arresting 18 women. The women were beaten and given electric shocks. All but one were strip-searched, forced to submit to a “virginity test” and told they would be charged with prostitution. This will not stop the women, it only makes deeper the desire and passion for change.

With the counter-revolution lurking even now in the new uprisings, it is important that Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence does not only mean that revolution can’t stop with the overthrow of the established leadership. It has implications for what revolution has to mean, something Dunayevskaya spoke to profoundly by insisting that “revolution has to be total from the start.” It means that you can’t separate into two different parts the dual nature of revolution, “not just the overthrow of the old, but the creation of the new; not just the reorganization of objective, material foundations but the release of subjective personal freedom, creativity, and talents.” That very specific articulation of the creation of the new has to be what the revolution is demanding, now and as the goal!


That is why women’s participation–most especially their thoughts, ideas, desires and demands–are so crucial for a revolution to be successful. For women to be free, all human relationships must be transformed. That is what it means that revolution must be total from the start. New human relations most certainly means new production relations, where in the process of creating what we need (and often don’t need as well) under capitalism, human beings are transformed into things. It is because women have experienced that dehumanization on so many different levels that their demand for full personhood cuts to the essence of the meaning of revolution, of a total change.

That self-confidence that women are expressing in militant action now, must also become a self-confidence in thought, a clarification of what revolution has to become, a refusal to stop at the important victory of overthrowing tyrants, or even the establishment of a bourgeois democracy. The independence of the movement is key, as well as the self-confidence in their own ideas and vision of the future they are establishing in the squares, in the midst of the fight. The struggle must continue.

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