Women Making Democracy

March 29th-30th, 2012

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study


This article was jointly drafted by John Corbett, Mathilde Montpetit, and Sarah Moon.


The “Women Making Democracy” conference held by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on March 29th and 30th attempted to examine the role of women in the Arab Spring from a variety of angles. Its panelists drew from a refreshingly diverse variety of fields; though the majority of speakers were academics, a Gallup pollster, a UN official, and the playwright Ibrahim El-Husseini—whose play “Comedia Al-Ahzaan” (Comedy of Sorrows) attempted to offer an aesthetic nuance to an otherwise conventional discussion—also took part.

Individually, a number of speakers made important claims. Dalia Mogahed, the Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, argued that views about the employment of women in the Arab World do not correlate with opinions of Islam’s role in government but rather with levels of male employment and the Human Development Index. Other speakers focused on the visual aspect of the revolution, exploring the images that it has produced and their ramifications for feminism.

Yet the conference as a whole suffered from a number of fundamental flaws. One such flaw was overall coherence, exemplified by the dramatic reading of “Comedia al-Ahzaan.” While there was certainly artistic merit to the production, many of the metaphors were left unexplained. Although the play could very well have been more comprehensible in its original Arabic, the translation process seemed to rob it of a large portion of its clarity. Despite this, the audience was attentive and nodded along in solemn acceptance throughout the performance, even when scenes were difficult to interpret.

The message that the Radcliffe Institute and the participants of the conference worked to convey is undeniably valuable. Its potency, however, was somewhat undermined by the audience demographics, which were not representative of the stakeholders of the revolutions under discussion. Although this is not a failing in and of itself, in the context of a conference about the Arab Spring—a movement led primarily by youth, particularly among women—the demographics of the audience created a fundamental divide that the panelists seemed to find difficult to breach. They were attentive and polite, to be sure. However, they did not demonstrate the fervor or the inspiration necessary to relay the message to a broader audience where it might take root and ultimately bring about change. That some audience members were knitting during the conference suggests a fundamental lack of passion about the issues at stake.

A question and answer session at the end of the last panel of the day was illustrative of the disconnect between the panelists and observers. For example, one audience member asked whether it was damaging to political movements to include feminism in their goals, since so many men joined movements to meet attractive girls. Another wanted to know whether it was even possible to establish the right institutions to compensate for the “fundamental differences between men and women.” The panelists addressed these questions to the best of their ability.

In contrast, many of the more relevant questions were left unanswered. For example, a younger member of the audience referenced the Girl with the Blue Bra, an Egyptian woman dragged and beaten by soldiers in December 2011 whose image circulated widely. She asked the panelists—who had just finished lecturing on the damage that idealized female figures can have on feminist goals—whether they believed that it was problematic that victimized women were often the only female symbols of these revolutions. The panelists chose not to respond.  

The conference raised some worthwhile points, but the panelists’ arguments appeared to fall on deaf ears. For many, the conference seemed to amount to an absolution of the guilt they felt in continuing their own comfortable existences while women in the Arab Spring faced hardship. At the end of the conference, the women picked up their purses, shared a cup of coffee, and then returned home.

The woman on the poster for the conference is Malalai Joya, an Afghani woman who has worked tirelessly to advance women’s rights in Afghanistan. She once said, “I don't fear death; I fear remaining silent in the face of injustice.”  This, of course, is what the panelists were brought together to discuss in this conference. Each of them proved to be extremely well-educated on their facet of the dialogue, and together they cultivated a rich discussion amongst themselves about the best way to combat the challenges currently facing women in the Arab Spring. Given the dynamic, it seems safe to say that the women in attendance learned valuable lessons and gained fresh perspectives from listening to their peers, and in that sense the conference partially achieved the impact that it sought to make. Additionally, true to the words of the conference “mascot,” none of these women, the conference speakers, are “remaining silent in the face of injustice.” However, none of these women were silent before the conference took place.

For the attendees, however, the conference is unlikely to fundamentally change much. Listening, unfortunately, is still “remaining silent.”