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Tunisia » Women's Courage

Posts Tagged ‘Tunisia’

Women in Revolution

February 24th, 2011

After reading one of my colleague’s posts about women in the Iranian revolution, I could not help but wonder how various political upheavals have benefitted or hurt women’s rights. Revolutions come at times of great political unrest, where the current regime has become so intolerable that people must forcibly remove it and replace it with something new. What sparks a revolution is an investigation for another time but the fundamental qualities are very much the same. Charismatic leaders tap into the populace’s feelings of oppression and pain under governments that impose upon their people for too long or prevent opportunities for equal political expression. After a while, there is usually a spark that ignites people’s passion and the revolution cascades from there. This is no more visible now than across the Middle East where a YouTube video of a man setting himself on fire sparked the political conflagration we can see today. Yet revolutions, especially violent ones, are chaotic and hard to control. Their outcomes are highly uncertain and promises leaders make to increase participation can be revoked once the new regime is in place. It is irrefutable that women play important roles in these types of movements but their interests are not always represented once the feverishness has subsided. For the rest of this piece I will examine the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Cultural Revolution in China, comparing their outcomes for women’s rights and attempt to divine how these lessons might relate the current revolutionary action in the Middle East.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran was heavily supported by women. While under the Shah’s regime, women had several restrictions on their personal agency, like having to ask a husband’s permission before leaving the house. They were inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary message and were active participants in the overthrow, even receiving praise from the cleric for their efforts.[1] However, this period of good will quickly ended and the new government, from Khomeini’s direction, rolled back women’s personal rights even further. Ironically the political rights were not restricted in the same way. Now Iranian women have fewer rights than they did under the Shah.

During the Cultural Revolution, which was disruptive both violently and socially, Chinese women made significant gains. In fact, Mao once famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” and he made them valuable and important members of the revolutionary movement.[2] Forced marriage and foot binding were made illegal, and women were allowed to enter the labor force in a formal way. Women even made gains in reproductive rights through governmental birth control programs that encouraged delaying marriage and pregnancy and gave much of the population access to free or low cost contraceptives. While China still has a work to do on improving women’s rights, it seems this revolution brought about change for the good.

Recognizing that these examples are anecdotal rather than empirical, we can still draw the conclusion that revolutions, even when heavily supported by women, can produce different results.  Turning to the Middle East, many experts are pointing to the promotion of women’s rights as a causal factor in the new push for political reform. The Tunisian leader, Ben Ali, cited his good work in this area as proof of his good governance. Realistically, this strategy may have induced the societal awareness that was necessary to proliferate a revolution. Tunisian women have the highest rate of literacy in North Africa and have risen in social status significantly. As in Iran before, even the Islamists are speaking out for women.[3] Whether this will later be rhetoric used to gain support in the short-term is unclear. In Egypt, women are beginning to break away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which until the overthrow of Mubarak was the only political alternative to the dominant political party. Even still, the Brotherhood is claiming a commitment to promoting women’s rights.[4] Without a doubt, in times of revolution women are clearly courted for their support. Leaders recognize in that time their value, but depending on the eventual ideology that dominates the new political system, this agenda could easily fall away or be revoked entirely. My hope is that these women will learn from the Iranian example to be judicious and careful to guard against those looking to exploit their support for political expediency.


[1] Marshall, Tayana. “Iranian Revolution Turned Against Women Who Supported It.” The Peak. Vol 90: 5. June 5, 1995. www.peak.sfu.ca

[2] Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future. MLM Revolutionary Study Group. March 2007. http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/049_049_CRpaper-Final.pdf

[3] Bennhold, Katrin. “Women’s Rights a Strong Point in Tunisia.” The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. Feb. 22, 2011.

[4] Londono, Ernesto and Leila Fadel. “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces prospect of democracy amid internal discord.” The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com Feb. 21, 2011.

Fighting Political Instability with Female Economic Empowerment

February 17th, 2011

Throughout the world, political instability causes innumerable problems for international security. Failed states like Somalia and poorly governed states like Pakistan are breeding grounds for dangerous actors. For example, Somalia has become the number one state responsible for piracy on the high seas. Similarly, the ungoverned regions of Pakistan, like the Swat Valley, are the strongholds of extremists, such as the Taliban, that launch attacks on both the Pakistani and Afghan governments. Therefore, if the United States is to address a major root cause of global instability, it would do well to focus on the problems of political instability that many states face.

One major factor in political instability is income inequality. It was well documented in a study in 1996 that political instability, often manifesting in violent protest or unrest, is significantly influenced by disparities in income distribution.[1] Their causal logic is fairly straightforward. When there is a large gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population, the social fabric of society is much weaker. The groups separate not only in wealth but in political status and importance, feeding unrest. In fact, the recent overthrow of the government in Kyrgystan and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were preceded by food shortages and general lack of economic opportunity for the populace.[2][3] In an ironic twist, economic development is also adversely affected by income inequality. A World Bank report on the issue outlines a couple important factors for this link. When there is a high level of inequality, it becomes difficult to reach political compromises between the wealthy and the poor, which further decreases the likelihood for investment in the country. Additionally, high inequality lowers the levels of trust and commitment necessary for enterprise by increasing the risk associated with business transactions.[4] In light of this evidence, combating income inequality should be an important goal for governmental policy.

One important way that income inequality can be reduced is through female empowerment in the workforce. It has been shown that women entering the work force in developed nations has contributed “more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India.”[5] Women have provided the energy and new ideas that have spurred vast growth in these countries and these results can be replicated in the developing world. Nevertheless, there are numerous barriers in place preventing women from expanding their economic impact. Strict gender roles and various patriarchal instruments are large hurdles for women in many developing countries. A study in the World Economic Forum demonstrated a significant correlation between sex equality and GDP per capita.[6] This is a telling finding. Furthermore, Denmark and Sweden are often viewed as two of the most stable governments in the world and they top the charts for female employment percentages. They also are two of the most equally countries when it comes to income distribution. These links are not random. The developing world, and much of the developed world, should look to these nations as excellent models for policy in the future. As gender equality increases in all states, there will be a great spurt of economic growth creating economic opportunity for both sexes which in turn will lead to better results for political stability.


[1] Alesina, Alberto and Robert Perotti. “Income distribution, political instability and investment.” European Economic Review. Vol. 40: 6. June 1996. pp 1203-1228.

[2] Dzyubenko, Olga. “Kyrgys troops break up crowd, see coup attempt.” Reuters. www.reuters.com. Aug. 5, 2010.

[3] Whitaker, Brian. “How a man setting fire to himself sparked an uprising in Tunisia.” The Guardian Online. guardian.co.uk. Dec. 28, 2010.

[4] “Income inequality.” World Bank Group. http://www.worldbank.org/depweb/beyond/beyondco/beg_05.pdf

[5] “The importance of sex.” The Economist Online. www.economist.com. Apr. 12, 2006.

[6] “A guide to womenomics.” The Economist Online. www.economist.com. Apr. 12, 2006.