In January-February 2011, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were overthrown by unprecedented mass mobilizations. Inspired by the Tunisian and the Egyptian revolutions, a wave of popular protest has spread to other Arab countries, although, apart from Libya, incumbent regimes are still in place. Contrary to the widespread view that Arab women are passive victims in their societies, they have played a prominent role in this large movement of protests, contributing as key actors of change. Women's massive participation in the so-called Arab Spring is em - blematic of the direction and extent of gender role changes in the Arab region, in general, and in the North African (NA) region, in particular, over the last few decades. Unsustainable socioeconomic conditions combined with a lack of political freedoms and repression lie at the root of the mass protests across the Arab world. As far as women are concerned, their political and economic exclusion, particularly among the young, has been even deeper than that of men. While women in NA societies have made considerable progress with regard to education and fertility rates, as this chapter shows, their integration into the economic sphere and formal political structures has been much slower. However, women's political agency in the public sphere is not a new phenomenon in this region. Over the decades, NA women, in growing numbers, have made their voices heard in various ways, from being active in women's organizations and in Islamist groups and political parties to participating in more spontaneous expressions of dissent and frustration such as sitins, strikes, and so on. The Arab Spring did not arise from a void but rather built up through a long process of individual and collective awareness of men and women alike, suggesting that women have long been shaping change in the NA region. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia came at a time when civil society actors, such as women's associations, human rights groups, and political opposition forces-including Islamist groups-were increasingly incapable of effecting political and economic change, owing to growing repression as well as internal weaknesses. The absence of large, viable, organized opposition forces and formal channels of political expression, combined with the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and political repression, explains the spontaneous and broad nature of the mobilizations. Based on these observations, this chapter examines the NA region and assesses the direction and extent of gender changes in the economic and political fields as well as provides a broad overview of women's activism in its diverse forms, with a particular focus on the Arab Spring. Copyright
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