Contemporary Islam

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 53–66 | Cite as

Is gender the barrier to democracy? Women, Islamism, and the “Arab spring”

  • Rola el-HusseiniEmail author


In the Western political science literature of the late 20th and early 21st century, the Middle East has often been described, not only as authoritarian, but also as impervious to democracy. Institutional, structural, and cultural explanations were advanced to explain this democracy deficit. This article will debunk the notion that democratization in the Middle East is limited by entrenched Muslim and/or Islamist views on social and sexual mores, and on women’s political and social rights. Indeed, the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” have shown that the desire for democracy is the reason for the overthrow of several regimes in the Arab world. These popular-led regime changes were triggered by a desire for political and social reform. The main actors behind the Arab uprisings have been Arab youths and women, with women actively participating in anti-regime demonstrations and sometimes paying the price for that participation with their bodies. Using examples mainly from North Africa, the article will show three trends that have emerged in the region since the 1990s: changes in the law proposed by grassroots secular activists, the work of Muslim feminists, and that of Islamist female activists in the transformation of women’s roles in the Middle East that counter the claim that Islamic views on gender equality limit the emergence of democracy.


Islam Women Democracy Muslim brotherhood Islamic feminism Islamist activism 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC)City University New York, Graduate CenterNew YorkUSA

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