Speaker analyzes feminism in Arab Spring

Over a year ago, the Middle East was shaken by the Arab Spring as demonstrators took to the streets to protest against their governments in nations across the region. Zakia Salime, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, came to the university on April 9 to speak about the depth and interaction between social forces in one such movement in Morocco in her lecture “Women’s Rights: Feminism, Islam and the Arab Spring.”

Salime began the lecture with a clip of interviews of members of the 20th of February Movement, a diverse group of Moroccans who are all demanding change from their government. Salime highlighted their grievances, which ranged from the poor state of healthcare to income inequality. Salime next shed light on the complex fabric of interactions between social groups in the movement that all meet in assemblies in cities throughout the country.

“One of the most amazing things that was happening was the general assembly where anyone can participate,” Salime said.

“They take them through a process of consensus development where they have to talk and debate for many hours before they can reach a decision.”

Salime identified the diversity of the members and the lack of hierarchical structure as hallmarks of the 20th of February Movement. Combined, these two elements have led to a great deal of interchange between groups who otherwise would have been virulent opponents.

“At first, the Islamists refused to talk about equality in rights,” Salime said. “But eventually the Islamist presence pushed the 20th  of February Movement to sit and talk about the issue.”

Despite the fact that many women are taking leading positions in the 20th of February Movement, the feminist movement in the nation has not joined the protests.

“The strong presence of women does not imply the participation of the feminist movement,” Salime said. “Some feminists even denounced the movement. That was the most shocking finding of my research.” Salime pointed out that the two movements are often in friction not only because of the generational gulf that divides them, but also because of their differing strategies. Salime finds that the feminist movement works with and in the government to pursue legal change, whereas the 20th of February movement aims to change the government through protest.

“I really appreciated Dr. Salime coming down to talk to us because she very much spoke to the Arab feminism movement in Morocco,” sophomore Naijla Faizi said. “I love that she made great statements about how the feminist movements are the ones working with the government to have an impact on society and the laws that are oppressing women.”

Salime’s lecture touched on a very complicated and sensitive issue for many — the treatment of women in Middle Eastern society.

“This is a sensitive issue, especially being a Muslim, when you talk about women in the Middle East, Islam, sharia, and women’s rights,” Muhammad Siddiqui, president of the Muslim Student Association, said.“It’s nice to see that this is a debate that is happening in Morocco and I think Dr. Salime really demonstrated that there are a variety of interpretations. It talked about so many intricacies.”