Moroccan protesters attend a women’s rights rally while holding placards reading “Stop assaulting girls by marrying minors” in Rabat, Feb. 20, 2012. (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

Many of the political changes initiated by the Arab Spring have negatively affected struggles for gender equality. Violence against politically active women has increased, from the “virginity tests” of protesters in Cairo less than a month after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow to the June 2014 assassination of Selwa Bugaighis, a prominent Libyan activist who helped organize the “Day of Rage” protests which started the Libyan uprising and advocated for gender quotas in parliament. The installation of more competitive elections has often further challenged women’s rights. Egypt’s first post-Mubarak constitutional assembly, whose membership closely reflected the Islamist majority in parliament, produced a constitution in which the main reference to women was a promise that the government would “guarantee the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.” The current constitution, which features much stronger language on women’s rights, including an explicit statement of equality between men and women and state commitments to “appropriate representation” of women in the parliament and to protect women from violence, was produced by an assembly appointed by a decree from the interim president installed by the military after Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow.

These challenges are all quite real. But it is also the case that new forms of grass-roots politics during the Arab Spring have often demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to gender equality among younger generations of activists. While there is no evidence that this commitment is shared by youth (defined here as people under 30 years old) more broadly, the fact that it is enacted by movements which have attained a high profile – often through positive media coverage – may help to “normalize” women’s rights among the broader population. This suggests another issue that begs for more research: the increasing use since the “Arab Spring” of television to break taboos in addressing sensitive social topics and to directly challenge government officials. This essay briefly examines new forms of modelling or working for women’s rights in Morocco and Egypt, highlights how changed media practice has multiplied their effects, and concludes by asking what constitutes the most appropriate universe of comparative cases for exploring these new forms of women’s rights activism.

While Morocco’s February 20 movement did not achieve the political reforms it sought, it offered a provocative model of how some pro-democracy activists represented a commitment to women’s right to an equal role to men in the public sphere. Zakia Salime notes that this commitment was evident from the first February 20 video encouraging citizens to join its protests. The video begins with 20-year-old Amina Boughalbi, a founding member of February 20, explaining why she would protest; male and female activists then alternate throughout the video describing their reasons for protesting. The first speaker at the first news conference organized by February 20 – and the speaker who spoke on behalf of the movement – was a 19 year-old woman. The prominent role of women in representing February 20 was not limited to visual representation, nor only to the early members of the movement, who Zeineb Touati describes in “Arab Spring and Arab Women: Challenges and Opportunities” as “students and young people who were not members of a party or a union.”Women continued to play a central role as the movement expanded to include organizations such as human rights associations and labor unions. Each group with membership in the 160-person National Council of Support of February 20 was represented by three members, one of whom had to be a woman. Similarities with February 20 can be seen in the Egyptian Women’s Union (Under Formation), which emerged after Mubarak’s overthrow and would send one male and one female member to each meeting with other groups.

In Egypt, new grass-roots work on women’s rights has come not in the form of opposition movements seeking political liberalization but primarily in work against sexual harassment in the streets, in the metro, and during Eids (Muslim religious holidays), as well as against sexual assaults at protests. It is very likely that sexual harassment has increased since Mubarak’s overthrow; in March 2013 Mariz Tadros found that focus group participants in five Egyptian governorates unanimously reported such increases since 2011. Sexual assaults at protests have also skyrocketed: Between November 2012 and August 2013, more than 200 women were assaulted at large political gatherings.

Between June and December 2012 at least five movements emerged to combat sexual harassment or sexual assault during protests. Young men and women in their early and mid-20s who had not previously been politically active formed the groups Basma and Against Harassment, while a third group, I Saw Harassment, grew out of a long-standing women’s rights NGO. Each group organized male and female volunteers to go to crowded areas such as Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square during Eids. Some members urged passersby to intervene if they saw harassment, while others physically separated groups of men pursuing women and assisted survivors who wanted to file police reports. These groups have significantly expanded their work over time. In early November 2014, I Saw Harassment provided anti-harassment training to hotel workers in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh as part of a cooperation agreement with the Chamber of Hotel Facilities. The agreement, signed in April 2014, materialized one month after the rape of a British tourist in Sharm el-Sheikh raised fears of further declines in the all-important tourist industry. In addition to these anti-harassment groups, in November 2012 two other movements – Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) and Tahrir Bodyguard – emerged to rescue women from assaults at protests.

Positive coverage of anti-harassment and assault activists on Egyptian satellite television has been one component of a larger increase in discussion of public sexual violence since Mubarak’s overthrow. Members of anti-harassment and assault groups are portrayed as role models. The announcer of a February 2013 show introduced a segment with Basma activists by saying that “after the 25th of January … the youth that are emerging want to help in everything and compensate for the deficiencies that may be present….that these movements are present is an excellent development in our country.” Other shows examine the role of religious and government authorities in public sexual violence. In November 2011 and December 2012 television talk show host Yousri Fouda interviewed visibly injured women the day after each was sexually assaulted at a protest; each woman directly charged representatives of the then-ruling government (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters in 2012) with their assaults. Extensive television coverage of “private” women’s rights issues has also occurred in Morocco. After 16-year old Amina Filali, who was forced by her family to marry a man alleged to have raped her, committed suicide in March 2012, Zeineb Touati notes that “debates were organized on television, especially on the state-owned first channel [al-Oula], in the presence of Bassima Hakkaoui, minister of solidarity, of women’s rights and the family.” On the March 21 episode of Moubacharatan Ma’akum (Live On the Air With You) talk show discussing Filali’s case, for example, women’s rights activist Nuzha al-Elwi challenged a representative of the Justice and Freedoms Ministry, a portfolio held by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) as part of its plurality victory in the November 2011 elections.

The willingness of satellite television broadcasters in Egypt since February 2011 to challenge political and social taboos has been noted by some commentators such as Adel Iskandar and Naomi Sakr, but deserves further analysis to understand both its sources and limitations. On-air challenges to government officials occurred fairly frequently in the early period of SCAF rule as well as during Morsi’s presidency. Although a scathing interrogation of the Health Minister occurred on a widely watched talk show in June 2014 after video of a woman assaulted in Tahrir during celebrations of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s inauguration went viral, such challenges to government officials have otherwise all but disappeared. But discussion of sensitive social issues may continue even in the current extremely repressive political climate, in part because one of the motivations for such coverage is economic. As the number of satellite channels increased from four at the end of the Mubarak era to 16 by late 2011, increased competition for viewers has led to increased coverage of topics thought to have prurient interest, which anti-harassment activists are convinced motivates much of the media coverage of their work.

In trying to better understand Egyptian anti-harassment activism, I have looked at prominent forms of women’s rights activism that developed elsewhere during similar periods of struggle against authoritarian rule. In a contribution to a forthcoming roundtable in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, I note that women’s rights groups that emerged during struggles against dictatorship in countries, such as Brazil and Indonesia were usually made up of women mobilizing, at least initially, around issues that concerned them as mothers, from the lack of day care to the difficulties inflation posed to their ability to feed their families. The Egyptian activists described here are often younger than these women, do not organize around motherhood and include large numbers of young men. Perhaps, then, the most apt category of comparison is not women’s rights mobilization in contexts of political transition in recent decades, but rather other forms of youth activism today independent of regime type. Groups similar to that of anti-harassment activists in Egypt, for example, have also sprung up in democratic India, including Blank Noise, an anti-harassment group founded by a female college student in 2003. Blank Noise is now active in nine Indian cities and counts a majority of its members from the 16-35 age group. Young men and women played a major role in the protests against the death of a 23-year old woman after a gang rape in New Delhi in December 2012. As Albeena Shakil noted, while activist work against rape and other forms of violence against women since the 1970s had been carried out almost exclusively by women, in the 2012 New Delhi protests “young students from universities and colleges, both males and females, came out demanding women’s rights,” representing what Shakeel argued “may be a turning point in our country.”The Arab Spring has not provided a “turning point” in struggles to keep women safe from sexual violence, but it has opened up multiple new ways for activists to challenge such violence.

Vickie Langohr is an associate professor of political science at College of the Holy Cross.