Young feminists on the move!

Lina AbiRafeh
7 min readNov 15, 2022

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Young people — particularly young women — are on the rise, leading feminist movements around the world. They are taking a stand and making big strides — they see what’s happening in their communities and around the world, and they’ve had enough. Now more than ever, we need the leadership of young people, to drive forward the kind of transformation we need.

Young women are leading the charge for change. We’re seeing this everywhere — from Afghanistan to Alabama, from India to Iran, from Tonga to Texas.

And these days, there’s more reason to rise up than ever. I’ve said over and over and over — we’re just not doing that well. Equality is farther than ever, and every single one of our basic rights is at risk. Yes, everywhere.

At the same time, young women’s movements are bringing us hope. They’re rising up relentlessly — often in the face of great risk. And they’re just not taking any crap.

Young women are lighting figurative — and literal — fires everywhere. This fight isn’t about other women, over there — it’s all of us. In Iran, the movement ignited following the murder of Mahsa Amini is the fire sparking the feminist revolution in Iran. Following Amini’s death, brave women took to the streets to declare their call to action: Women! Life! Freedom!

On November 10th, the UN General assembly called on Afghanistan’s Taliban to stop restricting women’s human rights. Women and girls are guilty simply for being women and girls — and women’s rights in Afghanistan have been on the decline since the Taliban reclaimed power in August of 2021. Women — especially young women — are taking a stand there, too.

In a recent article on Afghanistan, an Afghan woman asked: “When you have no freedom in your own country, then what does it mean to live here?” The same question can be asked by any woman today, in any country. Yes, even the US. Countries can not deny freedom, equality, rights to half of their population. All women — and particularly young women — are not going to let that happen.

On November 8th, young American women demanded to be heard. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has lit a fire amongst young women voters — they aren’t going back. The US Midterm Elections were supposed to bleed red, however young feminists demonstrated who really has the power. The strong turnout from young voters turned the red wave into light pink.

The message from young feminists is clear: we are young AND feminist AND we will turn the vote. Or take to the streets. Or do whatever it takes.

There’s a lot of conversation about young women’s feminist activism and leadership. I recently came across a guide by the World YWCA on how to consult young women-led feminist movements. This methodology differs from others in that it is meant to ignite transformation. That’s how I feel too — even raising key issues helps plant the seeds for change. The World YWCA Methodology centers girls and women in all their diversity, using a democratic and decolonized approach to place power firmly in the hands of young women as the architects of their own lives and choices.

In fact, the World YWCA built this perspective from what they call Goal 2035, a quest for 100 million young women and girls to transform power structures to create justice, gender equality, and a world without violence and war. Goal 2035 aligns with other global goals including the Sustainable Development Goals to fully realize the potential of women and girls and the urgent need to bring forth change.

All of that stuff is great on paper. But what does it mean in practice?

The world talks a big talk about young women’s movements and young women’s leadership — and feminist movements overall — but at the same time, hardly any funding goes to these movements. In fact, data shows that less than 1% of gender funding reaches feminist and women-led movements. And “gender funding” is already scant as it is! Currently, there’s a US request for 2.6 billion dollars to advance gender equity and quality — the largest budget request to date. If we ever see that money — who’s going to get it? And how to we get it to the frontline feminist movements — young women’s movements — who need it most?!

Young women’s feminist movements organize differently. They are feminist in the way they organize and collaborate and co-create. They are organic and intersectional in the way they address issues — in what makes them move. They inspire broad ownership as a collective, while also fostering individual and movement-based empowerment. They share power. They naturally include elements for self-care and safety — fostering safe spaces. And, they drive forward change that includes all of us — because all of us are needed for change to happen!

It is with both admiration and curiosity that we — my awesome co-author Rebecca O’Keeffe and I — decided to undertake an inquiry into young Arab women’s feminist activism. We saw women throughout the region on the frontlines fighting for change, and yet we just don’t hear enough about them.

“Women are a power that can’t be denied,” one Yemeni activist told us, “and it is time for women’s policies to be applied.”

So with that in mind, we wrote a book, building on a decade of inquiry, and in consultation with over 200 people — most of whom were young women from the Arab region.

We set out to understand these movements, the ways they manifest, and the impact they have on people’s lives. We looked back — over a period of 50 years — in order to look forward, to better understand what the next 50 years might hold. We wanted to understand what is holding the region back, what is holding it together, and what is driving it forward. We argue that young feminists are driving it forward — and that, under their leadership, things will finally move in the right direction. Or so we hope.

One Lebanese feminist told us this: “No one is born believing that women deserve less rights than others — the patriarchy teaches us that. Everyone is born a feminist and you either remain a feminist or you become a misogynist.”

There is vast diversity in the region — and in feminist movements in the region — but the notion that we are all united in our fight against the patriarchy underpinned and motivated our study. There is strength in this difference — if we harness and channel it effectively. And it starts with young feminists.

We believe in the power of women. Especially young women. And these young women are not just leaders of tomorrow — they are leading right now, today, in their own right.

“Feminism should be a matter of fact, not a matter of fight,” one young woman told us. Yes, we told her, with you on the frontlines, it will be.

Feminists and activists spoke of a “different kind of feminism” that was emerging in the region, a feminism that is young and inclusive. A feminism that is aware and awake — and ignited. This feminism, many said, was about “everywoman” — not the elite feminism of their mother’s generation. Not the charity feminism of decades past, but rather a genuine, grassroots and highly politicized feminism, an intersectional action-oriented feminism.

“Speaking up for equality in all its forms is not just a responsibility but a fundamental part of my core values,” one young feminist explained. “Feminism encompasses many intersectional issues that I believe need to be highlighted and changed in my community and society.”

But why did we focus on Arab feminisms? Firstly, we do not know enough about Arab feminisms — what they are, if/where they exist, how they manifest, and so much more. We believe that the history of Arab feminisms is incomplete and under-researched.

“I wish we had a defined Arab Feminism,” a young feminist from Morocco told us, “because I feel like our struggles as Arab women are erased and never defended by other feminists.”

Another young feminist from Lebanon added, “I really hope for more collaboration and also getting more recognition, especially as youth activists. In our region we often go unnoticed.”

Feminist movements are not limited to documented evidence, and too many movements remain unrecorded and unrepresented. Their stories should be told.

So we tried to tell them!

And these young women are unapologetically feminist. In the words of one young feminist: “The F-word. Is it a bad word? Too many people think so. Good thing I’m not those people.”

Good thing!

All of this to say that this work is ongoing, and its importance is increasing. The challenges faced in the region are acute and protracted — from conflict to humanitarian crises to economic and political instability. There are “some obstacles that may not exist in other countries,” a young Syrian feminist told us, and women’s rights are always the first casualty. Marginal progress followed by major regress — that’s the story of women’s rights in the Arab region. At the same time, all around the world, women’s rights are being actively denied.

We kept coming back to this — to the hope and determination of young feminists. “What are your hopes for the future of Arab feminism?” We asked them all.

One young feminist’s response sums it all up: “I hope we are still not fighting the same battles in fifty years.”

The book is being published by McFarland and will be out in Spring 2023. Watch this space for more!

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!