Amplifying women’s leadership in the Middle East

07 Mar 2023

To celebrate International Women's Day this year, we are sharing the work and stories of our community's change makers in fighting for gender equity and justice.  

Leading women scholars at The Australian National University are helping shine a light on the enduring and diverse ways women across the globe express their power.

Researchers from the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS) are at the forefront of advocating for a better understanding of women's activism and mobilisation for their rights across the Arabic speaking world, Turkey and Iran.

The amplification of these local voices by ANU researchers is important given the entrenchment of authoritarianism regimes across the region coupled with the emergence of neo-patriarchal and neo-conservative forces fuelled by corrupt elitist politics and western military interventions.

Key to Centre's crucial research is highlighting the long-standing position of female activists in the region, who are often at the forefront of social and political movements.

In Iran late last year, widespread women-led protests erupted following the death of a young Iranian woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of the notorious morality police. With the slogan "Women, Life, Freedom!", women took to the streets demanding an end to patriarchal laws and oppression. The female protesters have continued their activism despite a violent crackdown that has cost many lives.

CAIS PhD student, Niloufar Baghernia stressed the importance of understanding how these ongoing protests in Iran have roots in the feminist struggles of the past century.

"There is a tendency in the media to describe the protests as a reaction to the issue of mandatory hijab or dress codes. But the protests represent something much more powerful that cuts across society and reflects decades of sustained political, economic and social repression adversely impacting both from men and women."

In a similar vein, Dr Kinda Alsamara highlights that since the 1920s the women's movement in Syria made great strides toward equality and empowerment at government and community levels. However, millions of people, mostly women and children, have now fled their homes in Syria to neighbouring countries.

The current situation with women exposed to multiplicities of war, violence and threat, and with the recent earthquakes further compounding these risks, have resulted once again in the disproportionate impact borne by women.

"The confluence of war, conflict and natural disasters raise significantly the risks to these women in terms of safety, exposure to violence, general hardship and access to basic and life-saving health care."

However, women continue to play an important role in peace efforts.

Women in Turkey continue to mobilise against the restrictions on freedoms imposed by the increasingly authoritarianism of the current government.

CAIS Turkish Studies convenor and Lecturer, Dr Burcu Cevik-Compiegne points to the "feminist night marches" in Turkey as exemplifying grassroots female-led mobilisation.

These marches, which have continued for several years, typically take place at night and protest gender-based violence as well as demand greater protections for women's rights, particularly those from marginalised communities.

"Despite the risks involved, these marches continue to be an important form of activism in Turkey."

With the entrenchment of authoritarianism across the Middle East following the 2011 Arab Uprisings, women's rights activists and organisations face many challenges in the Arabic speaking world including repression, gender-based violence and persecution from governments and conservative forces.

There is still reason for hope and even optimism. The Centre's Director Professor Karima Laachir points to how many young women are leading the charge for change using various platforms including social media to mobilise wider audiences.

"Women in the region continue to play a prominent role in resisting authoritarian tyranny and neo-patriarchal forces drawing on a long history of feminist activism and agency.

It is important we amplify their voices and utilise our freedoms here in Australia to bring to the world's attention the enduring courage and activism of these women across the Middle East."


Read more about the work and research of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

For more stories and events celebrating International Women's Day at ANU this year, visit our IWD space.

Image credit: Iran Protests | Taymaz Valley | FlickrCreative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic - CC BY 2.0