Arab women play a crucial role in the revolutions sweeping the region, but most men are not supportive of them and do not see the ‘woman question’ as crucial. Not one single slogan in all the uprisings is concerned with the inferior position of women or calls for parity between the sexes. Men still prioritise sovereignty and democracy over gender equality. There is a widespread belief in the Arab world, among most men and some women, that females are inferior. A number of intertwined historical, religious, political and social factors are behind this conviction. Many see women as lesser beings, weak and impressionable, who therefore cannot be trusted with the grave responsibilities of full citizenship and leadership.

Women’s contribution to the popular protests that have swept the Arab world is energetic and inspiring and flies in the face of the above assumptions. Some of the bravest Arabs battling for a democratic future are women. They are doctors, lawyers, writers and human rights activists, among others.

The image of the silent and oppressed Arab woman was totally shattered when the twenty-year-old Bahraini poet Ayat Al-Qormezi read her poem in Tahrir Square. It was an amazing act of courage and defiance. She called for King Hamad Al-Khalifa’s resignation and openly challenged his oppressive rule. ‘Bahrain is not owned by Al Khalifa. It is my Bahrain’, she said. As soon as she returned to Bahrain she went into hiding. The security forces coerced the Qormezi family into disclosing her whereabouts. On 31 March she was arrested and her family have heard no word from her since. Her mother, devastated, recorded a heart-rending plea for her release on YouTube, and it went viral. She also spoke to the international media begging for mercy for her daughter. She, like many other Arab mothers, was pushed into activism and visibility by her plight. When the family started searching for Ayat the police told them they had no information about her and tried to force them to sign a letter stating that their daughter had gone missing. In mid-April, an anonymous call was made to the Qormezi family informing them that Ayat was ill. Doctors confirmed that Ayat had gone into a coma after being raped several times. (Ayat has since been imprisoned for one year). Many other women, including doctors, university professors and students, have been kidnapped or arrested by the Bahraini security forces.

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