When President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried desperately to quell Yemen's popular uprising, he appealed to tribalism, customs and traditions. All his efforts evidently failed, and the revolution continued unabated. When Saleh denounced women for joining men in demonstrations in Sana'a – playing on cultural sensitivities and a very selective interpretation of religion – the response was even more poignant. Thousands of women took to the streets, denouncing Saleh's regime and calling for its ouster.
The immediate popular response was notable for its level of organization and decisiveness. It was also interesting because most of the women protesting did so while wearing the Niqab. Fully covered Yemeni women have continued to inspire – if not fuel – the revolution which started in February. Without their active participation and resilience in the face of violent attempts to quash the uprising, one wonders if Yemen could have held on for so long.
The role of Yemeni women in the revolution should significantly challenge any ideas of Arab women that are based simply on statistical or superficial criteria. In 2010, the Freedom House report on women in the Middle East had already determined that Yemen made no significant progress on women’s rights in the preceding five years. Most international reports examining the standing of women in Yemen – whether in education, health or any other field – have consistently been bleak. Yet, in revolutionary Yemen, the discounted women were more than equal to their male peers when it came to articulating their demands for freedom, democracy and equality.
Yemeni women have not simply broken the stereotype regarding what truly 'radical' women in a traditional society should be. They have also challenged all sorts of academic takes on the subject. No famous feminist or NGO has been responsible for mobilizing the women's activism. Yemeni women are also not specifically asking for equality in a supposedly men-dominated society. They seem to understand that a truly free and democratic society will naturally deliver on its promises of equal treatment, opportunities and expectations for all.
Western media and think-tanks have long presented a mistaken and divisive understanding of Arab – and other – societies. There is a discrepancy between the actual situation and indicators-driven understanding. Entire Arab societies are deconstructed and reduced into simple data, which is filtered, classified and juggled to fit into precise criteria and clear-cut conclusions. Public opinions and entire policies are then formed or formulated based on these conclusions.
The problem does not lie in academic practices per se, but rather the objective-specific understanding that many in the west have towards the Middle East. Most Washington-based think-tanks – regardless of their political leanings – tend to study distant societies only for the sake of producing definite answers and recommendations. However, providing an all-encompassing depiction of a society like Yemen's – whose internal dynamics and complexity necessarily differs from any other's in the region – would be most unhelpful for those eager to design policies and short-term strategies on the go.
Arab revolutions continue to tear down archaic beliefs and misguided understandings, challenging the wild theories around Arab peoples and their supposed wrangling between secularism and Islamism. Despite all of this, the self-seeking objectifying of Arabs continues in western media.
Under the all-inclusive title, “The Arab World: The Awakening”, an article in Economist Magazine (Feb 17) attempted to describe the upheaval currently underway throughout the Arab world. Interspersed with such predictable terms as 'extremists', 'Islamists', 'strongmen' and so on, the inane analysis made way for equally silly conclusions. The article, for example, suggested that the West's decision to accommodate dictatorial regimes in the Middle East was motivated by a mix of despair and altruism: “The West has surrendered to this (Arab) despair too, assuming that only the strongmen could hold back the extremists.”
While words such 'extremists', 'fundamentalists' and 'terrorists' may have their own special ring to western audiences, they could well mean something entirely different – if anything at all – to Arabs. Listening to the Arab media's coverage of ongoing revolutions, one may not even encounter any of the above terminologies. At times, they can be entirely irrelevant in terms of understanding the momentous happenings underway throughout the region.
The Libyan rebellion is another example to note here. Revolution and war in Libya have ignited a heated debate among Arab intellectuals, pertaining to the use of violence and foreign intervention – although barely in support of the Libyan regime. However, for the New York Times, the coverage of the story is often slated and removed from current reality in Libya. The article “Exiled Islamists Watch Rebellion Unfold at Home,” (NYT, July 18) attempted to answer a nagging question concerning the relationship between Islamists and the Libyan rebels. This question is relevant only to western governments. Although the group examined – the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – has long been dismantled, its alleged former ties with al-Qaeda continue to concern many in the west. While for Libyans, “the men are seen not as an alien, pernicious force but as patriots,” the article claims that many in the West “are trying to assess their influence and any lingering links to Al Qaeda.”
Arab revolutions are attempting to examine larger issues that have tremendous impact on all aspects of life. They are actively confronting the suffering caused at the hands of local dictators supported by Western and other foreign governments. Western media and intellectuals, however, continue to seek only easy answers to intricate, multifaceted questions. In doing so, they follow the path of the same superficial, stereotypical and predictable discourse. While Arab societies discuss democracy, freedom and social justice, Western writers continue to follow the imagined paths of al-Qaeda, Islamists, moderates and extremists. In all of this, they are embarking on yet another futile hunt, a hunt that which will yield no concrete answers, and more misguided policies.