Credit: TMS illustration by Michael Osbun

Natana J. DeLong-Bas is editor of the forthcoming "Islam and Women" and author of "Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad." This article is from the Common Ground News Service.

The capture and killing of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, ongoing demonstrations for an end to the oppressive reigns of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh and Syria's Bashar Assad, and new elections in Tunisia show that one thing has not changed in the Arab Spring -- change itself. Even in Saudi Arabia, where requests for reform have not called for regime change, change is proving inevitable with the death of Crown Prince Sultan.

Much of the world's attention has focused not only on the political changes in these countries, but also what these changes mean for the region's women.

My colleague, cultural anthropologist Yasmin Moll from Egypt, and I were recently talking about our frustration with this method of framing the issues. It seems to suggest that the meaning of these changes for women is somehow different from the meaning for men -- that women are a sideshow to the main male event, and that revolutions are inherently male-dominated, with women left to play, at best, supporting roles.

Focusing on "women's rights" suggests that women are a separate social category, unrelated to national issues. When issues are defined this way, many men conclude that they have no reason to be concerned about them and that they have nothing to contribute or gain.

Nothing could be further from the truth. "Women's issues" are everyone's issues. Women aren't a minority -- they constitute half of the population. As such, their rights and responsibilities are not minor issues, but national ones. How women are treated in the eyes of the state and the law is a matter of citizenship, not womanhood. And assuring that women are included as citizens requires the support and activism of male public figures.

Women have played important roles as leaders and organizers in the various revolutions, as well as demonstrators and providers of technical and logistical support: Egyptian nongovernmental organizations estimate that 40 percent of the protesters at Tahrir Square were women.

In Yemen, Tawakkul Karman's years of peaceful calls for an end to Saleh's regime won her the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Libya's revolution was initiated by a group of female lawyers. Syrian women began the demonstrations against Assad by organizing sit-ins on highways.

Saudi women earned their right to vote, run for office and become full members of the Shura Council by proving their worth as professionals, employees, students and activists, as well as wives and mothers.

The powerful examples of the women of the Arab Spring should be viewed not as exceptional, but rather as a normal and acceptable way for women from all walks of life to appear and participate in public space, addressing issues of national concern. Secularists and political Islamic activists, veiled and unveiled, conservatives and liberals, and professionals and housewives alike have taken to the streets, proving that the issues aren't limited to a single group, ideology or outlook. Limiting women's achievement and access to the corridors of power and decision-making not only deprives the nation of the voices of half of its citizenry, but limits everyone's vision of what the nation should look like and how it should function.

If there is one clear message from the Arab Spring, it is that people, both women and men, are no longer willing to be passive. They are active agents for change who know their rights and are unafraid to demand, work and even die for them. They will hopefully continue to stand together as new governments are brought into power. Anything less robs the country of the voices and agents who created it.

The media should give proper attention to the powerful role women have played -- and continue to play -- not only in revolutions, but also in the hard work of state construction that lies ahead. We need to continue to see women as agents of change and participants in running their countries, so that we can continue to believe that this is both possible and desirable.


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