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On the Edge: Post-Conflict Political Generations of Women and Youth Activists in the ‘Second Wave’ of the Arab Spring

Panel VII-16, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
The mass popular mobilizations calling for radical regime change in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq in 2019 were billed the ‘Second Wave’ of the Arab Spring. The use of the same framing device for calls to collective action and protestors’ efforts to inscribe their actions in the precedent of 2011, lends credence to the idea of social movement diffusion. Yet this reading takes an ahistorical perspective that fails to consider how previous cycles of popular contention differed markedly in the countries under study, and how these in turn shaped distinct mobilization dynamics. The panel proposes to use the historical trajectories of the four countries to investigate the impact on the political subjectivities of women and youth activists and how these informed the ideational, organizational, and strategic dimension of their activism. This is accomplished through a theoretical framework consisting of two prisms of analysis that draws on the concepts of governmentality and political generation. First, the papers situate the investigation in the post-conflict nature of Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq and post-war state consolidation through the governmentality of women and youth. They will investigate institutional and punitive mechanisms for the governance of women and youth and how these shaped political subjectivities to craft the citizens required by the reconfigured state. Second, the papers place the 2019 uprisings in a longer timeframe of contention, taking into consideration previous cycles of mass mobilization and their impact on the formation of political generations. This includes specific investigation of intergenerational power dynamics alongside political learning processes that informed the modes of collective action and the meanings ascribed therein among the 2019 activists. This dual lens reveals an activism of women and youth in these uprisings that was collectively understood as ‘on the edge’. Their activism pushed the boundaries of acceptable modes of contention and engagement without crossing into full-on civil strife. Simultaneously, their activism created a new frontier for understanding intersectionality where activists go beyond the tropes of ‘womanhood’ and ‘youthhood’ as imposed by the post-conflict state. The panel consists of four papers, one from each of the countries of the ‘second wave’ of the Arab Spring and draws on original data sets and new rounds of fieldwork.
Political Science
  • Dr. Rola El-Husseini
    .According to UN Women (2019), Lebanese women of all sects, ages and classes participated almost at parity with men in the so-called October 2019 “revolution.” They led political organizing, planned marches, helped run roadblocks, headed strategy sessions, gave socio-political lectures, and provided free legal advice, among other actions. They also held more traditional roles, cooking for protesters, helping with childcare and providing winterization needs. They used their femininity to protect male protestors often acting as buffers between men and the riot police. This presentation examines the role of women in the 2019 revolution, especially in the Sunni majority conservative northern city of Tripoli-- often presented as the bastion of Sunni Islam in Lebanon. Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city and one of the poorest cities on the Mediterranean. It was portrayed in the press as the “bride of the uprising”, joyously breaking with its stereotypical image as a conservative city riddled with poverty and sectarian strife. This highlighted its central role in the Lebanese revolution and the important role of peripheral cities in the Arab uprisings. Over 100,000 people participated daily in the first months of the uprising in Tripoli’s main plaza Sahat al-Nour-- at least half of whom were women. Female occupation of public space (especially at night) was surprising and disruptive because of the traditional mores of the city. This work is based on 15 semi-structured interviews conducted online with middle-class women in the 40s and 50s who had participated in the revolution. These women are part of the “war generation,” (Mannheim 1952) and had therefore been so far reluctant to get involved in formal and/or street politics. This presentation will answer the following questions: What motivated their participation in the 2019 revolution? What form did this participation take? How often did they go to the streets? What were their demands, and what did they hope to accomplish? How do they feel about their participation after the failure of the revolution? This presentation argues that these women’s participation was not motivated by feminist concerns, but by maternal fears for the future of their children.
  • Dr. Liv Tonnessen
    Building on scholarship on women's bodies and uprisings in other Arab world (e.g., Hafez 2014, 2019; Singerman 2013; Alnaas and Pratt 2015; Pratt 2020) and conflict and gender scholarship (e.g., Kreft 2019; Berry 2015), the article suggest that backlash against women protestors has ignited different forms of feminist mobilization in Sudan. Women were at the forefront of the popular uprising which overthrew Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The way that women occupied the streets challenged deeply embedded ideas of appropriate gender roles. Women’s bodies were targeted by security and military actors through sexual and gender-based violence to push women back into the private sphere “where they belong”. And with that they were also calling on Sudanese families to protect their daughters, wives and sisters’ honour by keeping them away from danger. The female body thus became a “political battlefield” By being targeted by gendered violence, protestors were labelled as and forcefully turned into women protestors. Based on original interviews conducted with female protestors, we suggest that this targeted backlash against women as a group ignited waves of feminist mobilization in the country. Although largely sidelined from formal politics, young feminist found other spaces, online and offline, to organize away from established political elites in parties and social movements, including the older generation of women’s rights activists. In the aftermath of what has been labelled the December revolution and until the recent military coup, new women’s groups and new activists have entered the political scene. A feminist manifesto has been launched, and Sudan’s first women’s march against sexual and gender-based violence was organized. From being a concept associated with the West and widely rejected by the older generation of women’s rights activists, the young generation is now mobilizing under feminist slogans and are suggesting a radical transformation of politics in the country. Compared to other similar cases in the region, backlash in the wake of popular uprising in Sudan occurred before localized expressions of feminist mobilization. As such it is the backlash that mobilized young feminists to action. By paying attention to the emergence of new feminist mobilizations, Sudan also reveals the ways in which older women’s groups too had been implicated in the patriarchal logics of governance.
  • The Tishreen movement, the anti-regime mobilization of Iraqi youth since 2019, demonstrates many parallels with youth-led protests in other parts of the Arab region, including the shared grievances of corruption and the failed social contract along with demands for radical political change. Yet, one distinctive feature in the Iraqi case is the geographic dimension of protest. The Tishreen movement has been largely localized in Baghdad and central and southern regions, with less adhesion among youth in northern Sunni areas. The article argues that this geographic distinctiveness is reflective of the different political subjectivities and fields of action of youth that have emerged since the 2014 conflict with ISIS and the fragmentation of the political order. The article draws on the concept of the social imaginary, building on the work of Castoriadis and Taylor, to explore how Iraqi youth comprehend themselves as a social category, their relations with other generations, and their imagined parameters of action. The article finds that the conflict’s disruption to the governance of youth, and in particular the institutional mechanisms that mediate their citizenship and security, alongside the profound disruption to their own youthhoods, has transformed their relationship to the central state. It has also changed how they perceive themselves as youth/Iraqi youth, which has led to the emergence of new social imaginaries that demonstrate a rupture among youth along geographic lines. Whereas young people in northern regions are reinventing a notion of youthhood as individualist project focused on personal development and detached from projects of state-building and normative expectations, youth in central and southern regions have instead adopted a new generational conceptualization of themselves, inscribed in nationalist ambitions for a reimagined Iraqi nation-state. These different social imaginaries inform diverging mobilization dynamics and fields of action, divided between the private/personal and the public/national. The article contributes to broader discussions about Arab youth and contentious politics by placing centrally the role of social imaginaries of youth/youthhood as held by young people themselves. More precisely, the article shows how their own shared understandings of what it means to be young, and how they fit into Iraqi society, inform political subjectivities and mobilization dynamics beyond political and socioeconomic grievances. The article draws on 75 semi-structured interviews with youth gathered in Mosul and Basra in 2019-2020 and two round table discussions with Iraqi youth activists held in Erbil and virtually in 2021.
  • Seréna Nilsson Rabia
    It has been four years since Algerians on the 22 of February 2019 took to the streets every Friday to voice their dissatisfaction with the country’s sociopolitical situation (Cherbi 2023). They demanded the fall of the regime, including the military, and the destruction of the clientelist and bureaucratic system encompassing what the Algerians call le pouvoir (the power) (Guemar et al. 2019). Their movement, dubbed Hirak was the first protest since the war of liberation from the French involving such an active presence and participation of women from all social classes contesting and protesting the country’s status-quo and political structures (Filiu 2019, 75). This presentation explores the role and challenges of women during and post-2019, especially those of female politicians: a group of women often disregarded when talking about the Algerian protest movement. Female politicians in Algeria were highly involved in the protest, but their participation was not wanted by the protesters, which saw them as belonging to le pouvoir. Female politicians remained active in the protest and together with Algerian women reappropriated the Algerian public sphere by participating in the Hirak on Fridays and attending sit-ins in the evenings after Salat Al-Maghrib, two religious and male-dominated spheres and times. At the same time, female politicians experienced physical, psychological, sexual, economic, and semiotic violence by different parts of the Algerian society including male and female protesters (Krook 2020). After the protest, many politicians were forced to leave politics by the regime because of their affiliation with the protest while others left due to trauma and continued violence. Following the protest gender quotas were abolished and Algeria currently has the lowest percentage of formal female political participation since 2012. This work is based on 30 semi-structured interviews with local and national female politicians that participated in the protest. These women belong to different legislative sessions post-2012 and come from four historically distinct regions in Algeria i.e., Algiers, Annaba, Oran, and Tizi Ouzou. This presentation answers the following questions: What was female politicians’ role and why did they participate in the protest? How did their participation in the protest shape their political careers? What experiences, demands and challenges did the women have during and after the end of the protest? This presentation argues that female political participation and careers are shaped by their participation, endurance, and experiences during the Hirak.