The Trials of Spring: Women on the Frontlines of the Arab Spring
In a classroom, a place where students have the opportunity to gain mastery and expertise, ideally the teacher becomes an informed guide through the students' constructive journey of inquiry.
Students don't come into our classrooms devoid of ideas—quite the contrary, they know a lot and have opinions and emotions, and it is our responsibility as educators to help them find the words and vehicles to express themselves articulately and thoughtfully. Additionally, as educators it is also incumbent on us to make connections between a world that seems so far away—in this case the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) —and our local communities, which may be experiencing similar forms of marginalization, injustice, and inequity.
I was approached by the non-profit organization Peace is Loud to create a lesson plan to accompany the documentary cross-media project The Trials of Spring, a seven-part series telling the stories of nine women on the frontlines of the Arab Spring.1 My work on this lesson plan was created with the above goal in mind. It was developed by myself and by Dr. Faith Rogow, a media literacy educator and strategist, with Insighters Educational Consulting. We provide students with images and questions designed to educate them about the politics about the Arab Spring and locations where this activism occurred, and then we outline a series of problems that students are expected to deconstruct and come up with possible solutions for. In some cases the problems are complex, and by accessing the analytical tools in this lesson plan, students will gain a powerful understanding of the issues presented.
Lastly, students, in their analysis of the role of the media, will learn about sources of information and which questions they should be asking to be educated and critical consumers of print, social networking, and televised messages.
This lesson plan introduces students to the history of the Arab Spring, the MENA region, and a group of remarkable women whose lives were changed forever by the uprisings in ways large and small. Each student will become a resident “expert” on one of six countries featured in The Trials of Spring, and will use their expertise to examine the goals of war and the links between women’s activism and social change.
The lesson begins by asking students to draw an image that comes to mind when thinking of the word “war.” After discussing the images, we apply them to a conversation about the Arab Spring and the distinctions between “war,” “rebellion,” and “revolution.” The intent is for students to arrive at their own at the understanding about the relationship between “revolution” and broad societal change, and may or may not involve armed conflict. Because “revolution” encompasses fundamental changes at all levels of society and not just political leadership or military might, it must involve women.
Students then divide into groups, each of which is assigned one country from the following list: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Each group engages in directed research from specified sources (World Bank, BBC, Human Rights Watch, U.S. State Department, etc.) to develop (1) a general, written “backgrounder” on their assigned nation, and (2) a presentation to the class.
- The Backgrounder developed from these sources should include:
- Key information, properly cited, which will likely address these questions:
- Where is the country located?
- What is its relationship with the United States? Did the Arab Spring change the relationship in any way?
- When did protests begin?
- What event or events precipitated the first protests?
- Who was the leader of the country prior to the Arab Spring, and what type of political system did they use to govern?
- Who is the leader now, and how do they differ from their predecessor?
- What were the social/political/economic conditions that led to the uprising?
- What else is important to know about this country?
- An annotated source list that lists the type of source (e.g., government, commercial, personal blog, etc.), whether or not the source’s information was credible, and why you think so.
- Key information, properly cited, which will likely address these questions:
- The class presentations take the form of a live report or “briefing” focusing on the following questions:
- What is essential to know about this country in order to understand the conflict?
- Should this conflict be described as a “war”, a “rebellion”, or a “revolution”? Why?
These two activities are designed to develop a foundation of knowledge for students about the Arab Spring and the six countries in the MENA region and to prepare students to meet some individuals from that region who are trying to bring change to their home countries. In class, each group will convene and watch the section from The Trials of Spring about their assigned country:
- Syria: Brides of Peace
- Yemen: When is the Time?
- Tunisia: Keeping the Promise
- Bahrain: Our Oath
- Libya: Wake Up, Benghazi!
- Egypt: Life's Sentence
After each group watches their video, we reconvene as a class and invite students to share what they learned. Near the end of the discussion, we—the instructors—ask a version of these questions:
- Were you surprised that the video featured a woman protester rather than a man with a weapon? Why or why not?
- Thinking back, did your first image of war, on paper or in your mind, include a woman?
- Did the sources you used for your country profiles include information on or by women? If not, why not?
We then conclude the discussion with additional questions:
- How does the struggle in the video relate to your earlier conclusions about the purpose(s) of war, rebellion, or revolution?
- How might the likelihood of women being actively and publicly involved in the struggle change, depending on whether a conflict is a rebellion, revolution, or a war?
- If our typical associations with the word war don’t include images of women, yet we use the word to describe significant moments of social change, what does that mean for women and society?
This will provide a segue to the lesson’s wrap-up, which involves a discussion based on the article “Arab Spring Countries Find Peace Is Harder than Revolution.”3 We ask students to read this article and then use the following questions to elicit discussion:
- How does social disruption (e.g., lack of access to education, water, security, etc.) contribute to the ongoing conflicts?
- How does reporting on women’s lives and efforts in times of struggle and change affect our understanding of these conflicts? Why?
We end the unit by asking students to reflect, in writing, on the article’s final paragraphs:
Mohammed al-Sabri, an opposition leader in Yemen, where protests pushed the longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power last year, said this general sense of empowerment was the most significant accomplishment of the uprisings so far.
“The elites and the leaders in any society, whether it is revolutionary or not, can resign and say, ‘I’m done,’” he said. “But the people cannot resign.”
In these reflections we invite students to describe what they learned from the unit in general and their thoughts about women as agents of social change.
Online Reports and Publications
- Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s (WILPF) 2012 Report on the Status of Women in the MENA Region: "Outcome report 2012: Ending discrimination and reinforcing women's peace and security in the MENA region"
- The Association for Women’s Rights in Development’s (AWID) facts and policy briefs
- Amnesty International’s 2014/2015 Report on Egypt
- The International Federation for Human Rights’ (FIDH) Report— Egypt: Keeping Women Out: Sexual Violence against Women in the Public Sphere
- The International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)’s MENA Briefs: “What the Women Say: The Arab Spring and Implications for Women”
- “Extremism as Mainstream: Implications for Women, Development & Security in the MENA/Asia Region”
Karama’s Publications and Reports
Nazra for Feminist Studies
1The Trials of Spring, dir. Gini Reticker (New York: Peace is Loud, 2015), 39 min.
2Full downloadable lesson plan and accompanying worksheets
3Ben Hubbard and Rick Gladstone, “Arab Spring Countries Find Peace Is Harder than Revolution,” New York Times, August 14, 2013.