Will the Women of the Arab Spring be forgotten?

A year ago Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi torched himself out of economic despair. Little did he know that his act would spark the uprisings that tore through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.

A year ago Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi torched himself out of economic despair. Little did he know that his act would spark the uprisings that tore through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011.

The revolutions represented many things to many people - although each country involved has a different story to tell, one common factor is the fight for human rights, and more specifically, the struggle for recognition and equality led by women who took to the streets.

But on the anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation, Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja warns that a spreading anti-western feeling could cause the efforts of the female activists, bloggers and academics to extinguish.

"There is a fast-growing anti-western sentiment in the Middle East. To try to import the idea of feminism into the Middle East is not going to work - it needs to be addressed in a different way," she said at last night's 'Women of the Revolution' event hosted by The Frontline Club and BBC Arabic.

"We have to be able to create a movement in our own societies that say women have to be seen as equal within law and society. It will be more difficult if it is seen as a western notion that is being brought to the Middle East and imposed on them."

The debate in London - chaired by Channel 4 News's International Editor Lindsey Hilsum - brought together three female panellists; one from Bahrain, one from Libya, and one from Iran, who recalled their experiences of uprisings and described what they thought lies in store for the women of the Arab Spring.

"What we know from revolutions in the past is that women are there in the forefront, and then, 'thank you very much sisters, we'll be worrying about your rights and demands later, when we do more important things first'", Hilsum warned.

But the three panellists were adamant that they did not want a repeat of what happened in Iran in 1979, when women who had supported the revolution against the Shah had their rights curbed. The threat of that happening now is very real, with few women in positions of power in the new emerging governments.

But Alkhawaja was adamant that women "must not go home."

"This is setting a very important step. With this revolution, women have found a new voice for themselves", she says.

"Pearl Square is the Tahrir Square of Bahrain. There, women read poetry, gave political speeches, and set up their own tents to talk about women rights and movements. One of the important things about the revolution in Bahrain was breaking the stereotype that exists in the western world."

A self-professed Twitter activist and head of the foreign relations office for the Bahraini Centre for Human Rights, she is the daughter of prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and has been working around the clock to make sure that every single protest and human rights abuse in Bahrain is documented.

She says that women have been at the forefront of the revolutions in her country.

"One of the most amazing scenes happened on 14 February. Everyone had gathered for the first set of protests - I was translating for foreign journalists. People were being attacked, and the men started running, but the women didn't run. Instead, they picked up their flags and stood face to face with the riot police.

"You cannot imagine how scary it is, standing against someone in full armour, running at you and shooting."

Her sister Zaynab Alkhawaja, who was arrested by Bahraini security forces two days ago for peacefully protesting in Pearl Square, achieved international recognition in April after going on hunger strike to protest the human rights abuses happening in the country.

"When Zaynab and others were sitting in the roundabout, they were attacked by security forces. There is a clear video that shows the entire process of her arrest - she was screaming 'Down Hamad', when she was handcuffed and dragged to a police bus. She was slapped and punched in the face, and had her headscarf taken off and put around her mouth.

"She wears contact lenses. They sprayed something in her eyes and her contact lenses melted."

The charges brought against her, "which are the same charges they give in Egypt and Syria," were inciting hatred against the regime, illegal gathering (of five or more people), and assaulting a female police officer.

But Maryam warns that despite the atrocities committed by the Bahraini government - on November 23 the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights recorded 46 deaths since the beginning of the uprisings on 14 February - the uprisings are a 'vanished revolution' because of the west's disinterestedness in the country.

"People don't like to talk about it, because it's not a revolution based in the interests of the outside world. Saudia Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to stop the revolution - why is nobody talking about that?"

She also spoke of her worry of human rights violations in Bahrain being swept under the rug, as a "royally paid for" Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, established in June, could "set a dangerous precedent."

"King Hamad and his son came to England a few days ago, and yet there was no huge outcry from the international community because of this so-called human rights report," she added.

Maryam says that the growing anti-western sentiment, caused by the west's support for oppressive regimes in the past, is a danger to the emerging demands for equality, as anything seen as an imported western concept could be disregarded.

"In the Middle East, western governments stood by authoritarian regimes. That's why people in the Middle East say 'we don't want western governments to be imposing anything on us anymore. We need to have our own thing.'

"Anything seen to be coming from the west is seen to be rejected by the Middle East," she warned.

"The support can come if you pressure your governments to stop human rights violations in our countries. The best way to help is to stop all human rights in Bahrain, then we can start talking about building up societies."

Before You Go