Gender and Youth Emancipation: Silent Strategies for Social Change in the MENA Region

Jose Sánchez-García

Department of Communication, Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Gemma Aubarell

Faculty of Communication and International Relations,
Blanquerna - Universitat Ramon Llul

Ten years after the revolutionary movements that shook the MENA region, the young women of these countries have become the spearhead of the transformations that affect the immovable foundations of their societies: adult-centrism and patriarchalism. Thus, it is interesting to analyse how these young women, who fully participated in the revolutionary movements, have been silently but relentlessly transforming the social space. Many willingly accept the daily struggle to accommodate their aspirations to modern and traditional models around marriage or career paths. All this has led them to formulate new modes of sociability that their respective societies see as potential problems and synonymous with destabilisation, which, sometimes, transgress the hegemonic social forms to claim the universal rights of women.

During the winter and spring of 2010-11, images of young Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan women taking part in demonstrations to topple their respective regimes shocked many Europeans. Ten years on, the question arises as to whether the revolutionary episodes have entailed fundamental transformations for social relations and, especially, for the young women of the region. In these processes of change and social transformation, gender appears, on the one hand, as the most vulnerable dimension of the equation, while, on the other, young women have become the spearhead of those transformations that affect the very foundations of the structural immobility of their societies: adult-centrism and patriarchalism. New situations arise, such as the threat posed to women’s rights by the conservative forces that emerged from the revolutionary moments themselves or the current debate on gender diversity and LGTBIQ+. All these circumstances suggest the opportunity to address gender issues in this region from a necessarily trans-contextual and generational perspective. We wonder about the various forms of action of young women and their gender experiences in the Arab-Mediterranean region. We are interested in the notion of youth action and the context of its emancipatory potential from two different perspectives: one that considers youth as a potential danger to the social order; and a second approach that sees young women as social agents involved in the processes of social and cultural innovation, generators of social benefits. Moreover, without undermining the decisive importance of the institutions, resistance to transformations does not come only from political systems; we could say that their situation is nourished by reactionary and deeply sexist social contexts. Hence analysis of the silent strategies or social non-movements (Bayat, 2010)1 seems absolutely necessary when identifying the transformations led by young women.2

Silently Transforming the Social Space

Following the revolutionary outbreaks, we can note various silent strategies that have helped the constant, gradual and slow change in gender relations in these societies. To understand the importance of these “silent” and “silenced” movements for social transformation, it is necessary to expand the notion of the political beyond formal institutions and processes, such as elections, parliaments and constitutions, to what Rancière identified as “the political”.3 Significantly, beyond the institutional the truth is that women have been present in large numbers in street protests and demonstrations, as well as starting new activities in public and online spaces since before the 2010-11 events.

A good example are the constantly growing numbers of young women taking university degrees and as a workforce that has “normalised” the presence of girls in spheres that were previously almost exclusively male. Nevertheless, and beyond the supposed normalisation of access to general and higher education for young women, these are, by far, the most affected by the situation of job insecurity and socioeconomic access. That is why we refer to new groundbreaking areas that transform public spaces. The interest is twofold, since these are areas of global demand, but that involve specific challenges in the region to satisfy the aspirations of gender equality.

Sometimes I regret having chosen to work in a field where society does not accept women, and other times I tell myself that I must do everything possible to do my job

In an interview with a twenty-five-year-old Algerian woman, we see the important challenges involved in the search for new spaces, and the awareness of the social challenge she confronts in the face of a potential social change, which banishes her to the social margins. Yet she would never give up her sporting vocation. She says: “Sometimes I regret having chosen to work in a field where society does not accept women, and other times I tell myself that I must do everything possible to do my job, which I love, in a place where there is no culture of female sport, or acceptance of women’s endeavours in this field.”

In other areas, young women are opening up new possibilities that empower them, as is the case with access to employment in the business world. This context illustrates how, according to their social position, these young women have to fight every day to adapt their actions to modern and traditional models. In different conversations with young women entrepreneurs in Rabat, they saw themselves as agents of social change faced with a more individualistic way of life, in contrast to the more conventional way of life of “ordinary young Moroccans”. Salma is twenty-two years old, was born in Rabat and lives in Agdal, a middle/upper class suburb, but she has got her father’s permission to move to Casablanca to live alone. Her father is a maths teacher. He studies engineering but also runs a small water purification filter business. He is a member of the Enactus and Entrepreneur Café associations. However, some resistance from social institutions such as the family, especially towards the plans of young women entrepreneurs, means a family conflict motivated by the dominant gender discourse. Identification with entrepreneurship, in any case, enables these young women to construct their own representations, perceptions and ideas.

Salma notes the following about the feeling of freedom that transforms her self-perception: “It’s a freedom, in a sense. I am free to communicate in a specific way, free in my travels, movements… Being an entrepreneur, you can build your own idea of things, develop skills […]. Being an entrepreneur means realising your own dreams, not someone else’s.”

Identification with entrepreneurship, in any case, enables these young women to construct their own representations, perceptions and ideas Thus, a sense of individuality arises far from the socialisation and behaviours traditionally expected of young women. In any case, the selfperception as agents of social change is implicit in these words: “Now I have a mission in my school: I try to change the students so that they leave their comfort zones, study, exams or salary, jobs […]. There is a version of myself before learning about entrepreneurship and another later version, even on a personal level and in the way I see and consider things.”

Despite all the contradictions and insecurities produced by being in positions such as those described, this active presence in new spaces in the public and work environment has turned out to be an emancipatory instrument.

Marriage and Social Emancipation One of the social domains where the incidence of change is more dramatic for young women is the family and, specifically, marriage. Gender, social class, home, cultural capital, and family capital – as a source of respectability, honesty, honour, and so on – condition the decisions of young Arabs on their way to adulthood. In the region, from an anthropological perspective, the family continues to try to push young people, especially women, towards marriage as a political solution, to preserve family respectability and honour, which is their social capital. At the same time, the growing importance of friends as a social group in the search for a wife or husband heralds a change in trend in the actions of young women in this vital aspect of their path to adulthood in accordance with social norms. Despite generally being obliged to marry, they try to choose their partner for themselves. An independent and autonomous choice is crucial when it comes to marriage for young Arab women. As marriage is a socially normative step to reach social maturity, there are different stances between girls and boys, determined by the gender model. For young men, “finding a spouse becomes central to the masculine trajectory [according to mainstream orthodoxy] and a man’s status in the eyes of others. Men’s heterosexuality and desire to be married is taken for granted,” explains Ghannam about the children of al-Zawiya al-Hamra, a low-income neighbourhood in Cairo (Ghannam, 2013: 71).

The current situation causes a marriage paradox among young people for different reasons, depending on social class. In a focus group held in Algiers, young people considered marriage as a possible life project, to which one must dedicate time and a great deal of effort to form a family. In the case of young women, a twenty-five-year-old Algerian woman comments that “marriage means shaking off parental authority and more freedom… to create a family, to complete life,” since, as a twenty-nine-year-old Egyptian woman who still lives with her parents comments, “I cannot be independent: living alone is not really an option, it goes against cultural norms.” However, young women adapt these requirements to their ideas about the ideal husband. Rather than an obligation for these young women, currently marriage is an opportunity: it means freedom, love and autonomy. Young women continually describe their struggle against family control, especially valuing three main attributes: love, freedom and economic independence. In the words of a twenty-five-year-old woman from a rural area in Tunisia: “I will not chase any man; first I must find the person I am going to love […]. I want him to be […] quite handsome […], but not more beautiful than me […], but quite handsome […]. I want him to be really […] a man […]. A man, not like the young people of today, futile […] [Laughs].”

Thus, the values of family and marriage are the most important, since they are a fundamental basis for preserving patriarchy and gender roles. However, this new model of man is taking root, under the guise of new ways of understanding the female role, within couple relationships: “Girls think differently from before. I know I’m getting married, but I have to work because I can’t fully trust a man. The day he leaves me, or I don’t know […], I’m independent,” says a twenty-seven-year-old Tunisian woman.

As we can see, marriage becomes the start of a new life. Acquiring independence and emancipation itself is a key reason to understanding young women’s preference for getting married to complete their transition to adulthood but, at the same time, they want to “find a man who respects them and helps them, so they can do everything they could not do when they lived with their parents,” explains a young Algerian woman. From the perspective of young people, they feel trapped in a world where they are required to marry in order to become adults after gaining economic independence.

They want to find a man who respects them and helps them, so they can do everything they could not do when they lived with their parents

In this context, divorce – especially when instigated by women – is interpreted as the manifestation of their own independence, the result of a very important individual struggle and family independence in the face of a lack of rights. The difficulties in overcoming inequality throughout this process begin by manifesting themselves in the limited right to initiate the separation procedure. Despite the difficulties, or perhaps because of this, recent studies indicate that, for many women, the result of divorce turns out to be a tool of resilience and empowerment (Mendoza, 2020). This could be one of the reasons that explains why since the 2011 Revolution, divorce in Egypt has increased by more than 80%; that is, one in five couples divorces each year, according to official data.

Faced with a social and legal situation that does not reflect the reality of the evolution of the gender relationship in families, marriage becomes a snapshot in the normative and social framework. Young women are prompting this silent revolution, forcing the opportunity that traditional forms of informal relationships can offer in their favour – such as Urfi marriage, which takes place without an official contract. All this has opened a debate in societies such in Egypt, a country with one of the highest divorce rates and where the rights of women and the exercise of individual freedoms go hand in hand.

New Spaces of Expression and New Frontiers

The generation of young women who lived through the Arab revolutions, as well as new generations of young people in the southern and eastern Mediterranean, are facing a unique set of social and cultural challenges as they transition from adolescence to young adulthood. One of the most fundamental is, without a doubt, their condition as digital natives. Exposed to the same global influences and the same problems, the youths of these countries already belong to a global generation, connected, online and active on social media. However, there are different determining factors for the universalisation of social digitisation.

A first determining factor is the digital divide. Around 66% of people in general and 73% of young people in the Arab states were internet users in 2020. It is estimated that the region will have 160 million potential digital users by 2025; however, the digital gender divide remains the largest in the world, with women 12% less likely than men to use the internet. About 63 million women in the MENA region do not use mobile internet (Farley, 2021).

Despite this divide, young women have formulated new modes of sociability through expressions that to date are seen in their respective societies as potential problems and a synonym of destabilisation. Influencers, tik-tokers, gays and lesbians are the target of social and even government criticism. While this is happening, young men and women create spaces, mixing the possibilities of the global and the local, spaces that are both physical and symbolic, which endow them with livelihood, cultural practices of their own, scenarios for political disruption, identity affiliation, and enable them to assert their individual dignity – karama – (Sánchez-García and Aubarell, 2021).

 It seems important to us to focus this reflection within the framework of the post-digital perspective, understood as the socio-political dimension of the use of digital media (Hurley, 2021). From this perspective, what interests us here is to highlight the action and empowerment of young women through social media as a space for subjective and individual emancipation. And how, therefore, beyond understanding the transformative impact through content with social involvement – or precisely, the lack of it –, this digital use is socially perceived as a moral transgression and, in many cases, criminally prosecuted. This is where we locate the new gender transgressions.

Young women’s groups find innovative and creative ways and spaces to produce and distribute innovative cultural assets such as street art, plays, movies, music, and so on

In the same way that we talked about the digital divide, the position of marginalisation of young women in relation to culture does not prevent their commitment to and participation in informal cultural activities and practices, deeply rooted in local environments. Depending on their different backgrounds of social capital, young women’s groups find innovative and creative ways and spaces to produce and distribute innovative cultural assets such as street art, plays, movies, music, and so on.

Radjika is a street artist who lived on charity and trained at the National Circus School, which allowed her to travel to Europe and Turkey. She is the daughter of a broken family as a result of divorce; her father smokes, drinks and rents rooms to survive. When she lost her mother to a serious illness, she was thrown out on the street. She did not have the opportunity to live her childhood because of the daily struggle to eat and pay the rent. Radjika is a constant seeker of opportunities to realise her life plan. Now she can welcome her own father into her house, works in a branch of the National Circus School and can consider herself free and emancipated. She expresses the change thus: “When I entered the circus, I exploded and discovered my female body. In the street I was like a boy, working and doing hard things […]. The circus gave me this freedom of movement of my body, and I let go; the more I trained, the more relieved I felt about my family problem. And I discovered that I could fly alone.”

Since 2011, what some authors call Generation M has been appearing. This is a new generation trying to combine faith with the global world of the 21st century

In these strategies, the relationship with the peer group is the key to understanding the actions and behaviour of the region’s youth. Furthermore, we cannot forget that contemporary Arab girls are affected by the influence of global cultures. Thus, they face brand new forms of socialisation, where they do not find prototypes in earlier generations. Since 2011, what some authors call Generation M has been appearing (Janmohamed, 2016). This is a new generation trying to combine faith with the global world of the 21st century. Like their female counterparts in other societies, they carry out practices and activities and have aspirations related to everything associated with youth. These are young women, generally from well-off classes, who can be found in all the new shopping centres built in recent years in the main Arab Mediterranean cities. Dressed in halal fashion, they embrace technology and think they can make themselves, their communities and the world a better place. They are a group of self-empowered, tech-savvy young women who believe their identity encompasses both faith and modernity. This strong sense of religious identity is exhibited in all aspects of their lives. Thus, they conceive halal consumption as a way of practising religion, or carefully choose their holiday destinations, turning their choices as consumers into a manifestation of their values. They strengthen both their identity as Muslims and their place in the modern world, where consumption is a key factor in the self-definition of identity.

Final Conclusions

The young women of the MENA region are daughters of globalisation, whose ability to recognise and seize the opportunities offered by contemporary society stands out, incorporating and inventing new social practices rooted in their cultural discourses. But, at the same time, the changes in structural conditions have a strong impact on their aspirations, expectations and opportunities to plan future paths, generating diverse situations of disorientation and difficulty in solving their problems.

Even so, they are establishing practices that use all kinds of artefacts for their own benefit. They are capable of activating discourses and practices that often transgress hegemonic social forms, precisely because they behave with disruptive action. In their daily activities, young women take advantage of their social position and activate their abilities to claim their right to “be young”. This is the meaning of the term débrouillage, used by young Tunisian women, which can be translated as “getting by”. As Bayat (2010: 115) points out, young Arab women operate simultaneously in unique conditions of repression and opportunity and thus claim their status as young women (their youth). Escaping from the processes of political, economic, educational and cultural marginalisation places them in a struggle that targets the closest social institutions.

They are capable of activating discourses and practices that often transgress hegemonic social forms, precisely because they behave with disruptive action

This present situation justifies the need to move towards a perspective focused on the action of youths in the region on their own terms. They are implicitly claiming the right to be young, oscillating between the traditional and the modern, the family and the peer group, the informal and the formal, the desire to be young and the interest in being an adult. In this continuous, ubiquitous, inextricable and entangled youth, women are building their own way of facing current challenges. In other words, they are producing cultures through a new youth action, in a dialectical process of social articulation with adult cultures and social institutions, including the cultures of parents and youths, which reflect the distribution of cultural power in the broader level of society. In conclusion, the experience acquired by young women, especially in the context of non-institutional spaces, is the proof of the emergence of a female youth action to solve the difficulties of access to and appropriation of readily available cultural devices and demand for universal rights, increasingly widespread on the planet.


[1] According to Bayat (2010), social non-movements are made up of “non-collective actors” engaged in “collective action” directed at advancing the interests of the marginalised and subordinated, i.e. the urban poor, students, women and youths.
[2] For this article, the age range considered has been established between 15 and 29. The hypotheses set out emerge from a dialogue between collected qualitative and quantitative data. Qualitative data has been selected from that compiled during the fieldwork carried out in the framework of the Sahwa project (2013-16) by applying ethnographic techniques such as focus groups and narrative interviews. All the names in the texts are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of participants.
[3] According to Rancière, when there is a part of society which is not recognised as a part and acts and speaks to demand recognition, then politics is established. This, consequently, always emerges as a kind of fracture in the established social order. Given a division of the parts that is already established, recognised and even agreed, politics also breaks this
given structure, reveals a fracture and suggests a re-structuring (Rancière, 1996).


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