(WOMENSENEWS)– Betraying their own biases, various Western commentators have frequently expressed shock at the visible and active presence of women and girls in demonstrations across the region. This sense of surprise has often doubled at the sight of innumerable veiled women who have taken to the streets to demand their rights.

Indeed, women have been at the forefront of the region’s revolutions. They have been some of the most active organizers and leaders, both on and offline, from the early days of the Arab Spring. While for some, this political engagement has been a new experience, others were involved in activism, including on women’s rights issues, long before the revolutions began.

As they had started to do before the revolutions, women in the region are taking control over their issues and rights. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, they have developed their own culturally sensitive and locally focused solutions to deal with gender issues, which draw on the region’s rich legacy of indigenous women’s rights movements.

They have created formal groups and organizations, as well as loose campaigns, to deal with macro-level problems. These initiatives, which respond to local challenges, address a wide range of issues that do not necessarily speak to Western feminism’s traditional focus on individuality, reproductive rights and sexuality. Instead, many of these efforts are connected to wider concerns with political, economic and social justice, which are often ignored by feminist discourses in the West. These initiatives are often visionary ones, imagining a new and better set of opportunities for women in the region.

In leading and joining these groups women have and will continue to face opposition from social and political forces that prefer they remain outside the public sphere for ideological or partisan reasons. Nowhere is this more true than in Yemen, where a deeply rooted patriarchal culture has long stood hand in hand with the authoritarian state.

A Broader Vision

During Yemen’s revolution, women took to the streets to challenge political deprivations, and call for equal rights between genders.

As described by Saleem Haddad, an expert on the country, “Women activists throughout the country have insisted on articulating their struggle for equal rights within a broader revolutionary discourse calling for a ‘modern, civic state’ with ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ for all Yemeni citizens, regardless of gender, religion or geography. This statement is simple, but subversive. Through this approach, women activists have placed themselves at the very center of Yemen’s revolution, whose success now hinges upon the role these women will play in the coming years.”

By embedding women’s rights within larger calls for social justice, Yemen’s female activists have connected the revolution’s success with support for women’s rights. They are continuing to spread this message through political activism and groups, such as the Yemeni Feminist Movement, that raise awareness about gender equality.

In Egypt, various groups have also connected women’s issues to revolutionary demands for social justice. This has been particularly true for organizations dealing with rampant sexual harassment, which has been particularly intense in Tahrir Square. After the 18-day uprising ended, Tahrir gradually transformed into a symbol of extreme violence and assault against women. Some of the worst reported incidents of sexual harassment have occurred in the square, reaching unprecedented levels between November 2012 and February 2013.

Though the precise motivation is unclear, as Tahrir assaults have increased in intensity and frequency, some activists have insisted they represent attempts by the establishment to delegitimize demonstrations through targeting women’s safety. Certainly, the sheer scale and focus of these attacks suggest they are more than just incidental extensions of general problems with sexual harassment in the country.

Civilians Push Back

With the Egyptian police failing to prevent these assaults or arrest perpetrators, civilians–both women and men–have pushed back against this harassment and violence and defended women’s place in Tahrir. Formed in November 2012, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, also known by its Twitter handle, OpAntiSH, provides physical protection to women to stop incidents of group sexual harassment occurring during protests in Tahrir. At great personal risk, volunteers wearing reflective jackets collectively intervene in ongoing attacks to rescue targeted women and deliver them to safety.

To facilitate its work, OpAntiSH has various task forces that operate during demonstrations. These include teams that distribute flyers, which raise awareness about the group’s work and feature an emergency hotline number where callers can report ongoing attacks. Scouting groups look out for assaults occurring in Tahrir, while other sub-teams are responsible for taking rescued women to safe locations and providing them with first aid, if necessary.

On days where there are protests in the square, the group sets up a control room, usually close to Tahrir, from which it fields hotline calls and provides intervention teams with the locations of ongoing assaults. With a core group of about 15 organizers, OpAntiSH has between 100 to 200 volunteers on the ground on active days.

OpAntiSH provides an online forum for women who have been attacked in Tahrir to record their testimony and share their experiences of assault with the public. The group rejects the victim blaming that often accompanies sexual harassment and refuses any suggestion that women are responsible for these attacks.

For several reasons, OpAntiSH also makes a point of including women in its intervention team. As group member Yasmin El-Rifae explains that female victims have often been attacked by men claiming to be rescuers. By having female volunteers on these teams, OpAntiSH helps allay fears victims may have about the intentions of their rescuers. Female volunteers also help subvert gender stereotypes about “weak women” needing to be saved by “strong men.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many women want to join the intervention teams because of their own personal experiences. Quite a few volunteers with OpAntiSH were themselves attacked in Tahrir and rescued by group members; for them, joining these teams is a way both to give back and assert their refusal to leave the square.