'We have found our voice and it feels good'


The determination of ordinary women paved the way for revolution across the Middle East. But the promise of the Arab revolutions will be fulfilled only when the women who helped to liberate their nations achieve liberation for themselves

SHERINE DESCRIBES what happened to her last year as something akin to waking up from a deep slumber. The bubbly Cairo university student never had much interest in politics. “My life centred around my studies and my friends. I thought politics was not for me,” she says. “Most people I knew felt the same.”

But in spring last year, everything changed. Sherine and her friends joined the anti-regime protests that began in the Egyptian capital’s Tahrir Square before fanning throughout the country and eventually leading to the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak. “We, the people of Egypt, can never go back to dictatorship,” a defiant Sherine told me as we sat in a cafe close to Tahrir Square two months later. “We have woken up. We have lost our fear.”

One of the most striking aspects of the wave of revolutions and uprisings that has swept the Middle East and north Africa over the past 20 months, dislodging dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, is the mobilisation of ordinary women such as Sherine who had no previous history of political involvement.

From the earliest days of what became known as the Arab Spring, women have been at the forefront of protest – marching, chanting, braving tear gas and sometimes gunfire at rallies; fundraising and running social-media campaigns; treating those wounded by government forces bent on quashing the revolts; and even going on hunger strike, as Bahraini activist Zainab al-Khawaja did last year to highlight the detention and beating of her father, a prominent opposition figure.

In Libya, the effort to oust Col Muammar Gadafy, who had ruled with an iron fist for 42 years, propelled women in one of north Africa’s most conservative societies into roles they never imagined. The spark for Libya’s uprising was provided by a group of women whose male relatives were among 1,200 inmates killed by security forces in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre. The women, from elderly grandmothers to young daughters, refused to back down on their demand for justice. Their determination paved the way for revolution.

I METLibyan women who smuggled bullets in their handbags or ran guns for rebel fighters. “We didn’t fight on the frontline but we wanted to contribute in whatever way we could,” one Tripoli woman told me.

In Syria recently, I met women who opened up their homes as safe houses for rebel fighters and who spoke proudly of sons, husbands and brothers who had died in the bloodiest chapter of the Arab Spring. Women activists such as Razan Ghazzawi, awarded the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders annual human-rights prize this year, have been detained by Syrian security forces. Others, such as human-rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, have been forced into hiding after attempting to highlight abuses by the Syrian regime as it tries to quell the revolt against it. Fadwa Suleiman, a prominent Syrian actress, was ostracised by her family, which, like president Bashar al-Assad, belongs to the Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam, after she addressed anti-regime rallies in the besieged city of Homs.

The women who have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands across the Arab world span the range of female experience in the region: from those in headscarves or religiously conservative dress, including full-face veils, to young women in jeans and make-up, their heads uncovered.

“We have found our voice and it feels good,” one middle-aged Egyptian woman told me on Tahrir Square weeks after Mubarak resigned. “There is a sense that anything is possible.”

Activist Tawakkol Karman, who was instrumental in organising the protests in Yemen that eventually led to president Ali Abdullah Saleh agreeing to relinquish power last winter, paid tribute to her Arab sisters in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in December. Karman, the first Arab woman to be awarded the prize, praised those who struggle “to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men”.

Almost two years after those first heady months of revolution, however, many women in the region complain that overthrowing autocrats is proving easier than overturning the deep-rooted patriarchal norms that threaten to snuff out their new-found sense of liberation. Women activists are beginning to realise how difficult it will be to transform their engagement in the revolutions into longer-term economic, political, and social gains.

As Karman put it in June: “The most important thing the Arab Spring brought us was [that it gave] women leadership roles. When women become leaders of men, and men are following, when women sacrifice themselves and get killed in front of men, when they get detained for political issues and men don’t feel ashamed of women who are arrested, this is a change. But is it enough to change the situation of women? The answer is: not yet.”

Many women now fear for their rights, as Islamists harvest the fruits of revolution, winning elections in Egypt and Tunisia and gaining influence elsewhere.

In a recent collection of essays on women in the Arab Spring, Moushira Khattab, a former Egyptian ambassador to South Africa and minister of family and population, argued that while women joined men in the clamour for Mubarak’s fall, since then, “the train of change has not only left them behind, but has in fact turned against them . . . Dormant conservative value systems are being manipulated by a religious discourse that denies women their rights.”

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner and human-rights activist, has warned of what happened after Iran’s revolution in 1979: “A dictator fell from power, but a religious tyranny took the place of democracy.” Ebadi speaks from bitter personal experience. A senior judge at the time of the Iranian revolution, she and other women judges were either dismissed or forced to resign as the clerics who dominated the new order considered women unsuitable for such posts.

The promise of the Arab revolutions will only be fulfilled, Ebadi argues, “when women achieve their rights”. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda, which dominates a coalition government elected last autumn, says it wants to strengthen the country’s personal status code, which outlaws polygamy and allows Tunisian women rights not found elsewhere in the region.

Since the 1950s, Tunisian women have enjoyed relatively progressive marriage and divorce laws and access to birth control and abortion.

But recent debates over Tunisia’s draft constitution have triggered concerns that women’s rights could be undermined. Earlier this year, Ennahda’s leaders declared that sharia – or Islamic law – would not be the basis of the country’s constitution, a decision that prompted criticism from more hardline Islamist factions. Controversy flared this month when it emerged that a new clause in the proposed constitution describes a woman as “complementary to the man in the family and an associate to the man in the development of the country”. Thousands of women took to the streets in protest, some of them calling for the language from Tunisia’s 1956 constitution, which holds men and women as equals, to be used instead.

In Egypt, where religious parties made sweeping gains in post-Mubarak elections and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi is now president, female representation in parliament dropped from 12 per cent to just 2 per cent, and a Mubarak-era quota that allocated 64 seats to women was abandoned.

THE ISLAMISTmovements now adapting to the region’s changing political dynamics have women within their ranks. The executive council of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood includes Dr Majda Fallah, a medical doctor who used to live in Ireland, and Yemen’s Karman is affiliated with the Islamist Islah part. However, some of its members insist a woman cannot become president.

“Women are now confronting attempts to exclude them from public life, as well as acts of discrimination and violence, perpetrated with impunity by extremist groups and security forces,” noted a recent study by the International Federation for Human Rights.

In Tunisia, some women report being harassed for not wearing the hijab, or headscarf. In Egypt, female protesters have been subjected to “virginity tests” by the military junta that replaced Mubarak, a practice designed to humiliate them. One of the most iconic images from Cairo last year was that of a veiled young woman, her black robe torn asunder, being dragged and beaten by soldiers during a protest in Tahrir Square. A soldier’s foot is about to stomp on her torso, which is bare apart from her bright-blue bra. The freeze-framed video clip (see above) became a symbol of army brutality and a rallying cry for women demanding the end of military rule.

In Libya, the head of the interim government raised eyebrows last October when he vowed that all laws that contradict sharia would be annulled, mentioning restrictions on polygamy as an example. All political parties in Libya’s recently elected 200-member national congress – which includes 33 women (more than 600 women ran as candidates) – agree that sharia should be a main source of legislation when it comes to drawing up the country’s constitution. Some women fret over what that might mean for them in reality.

Others were taken aback when, at the government handover ceremony earlier this month, a female presenter was removed after an Islamist parliamentarian complained that she was not wearing hijab.

“Given the role they played in the revolution, Libyan women expected to play a greater role in government and society,” says Farah Abushwesha, a Libyan-Irish film-maker and member of the activist group Women4Libya. “Many fear they are being left out but they are so strong and determined they are not going to give in to those who would prefer that they stay in the background.”

One high-profile woman in post-Gadafy Libya is Dr Fatima Hamroush, who left her life in Ireland, where she worked as a consultant ophthalmologist in Drogheda, to become health minister in the interim government last year. “Everyone has a role to play in the new Libya, women included,” she says.

But Dr Hamroush has faced much criticism in her position, some of which appears to spring from the fact she is a woman, and one of the minority in Libya who does not wear hijab. “A number of times I have heard people say: ‘This ministry is hard enough for a man so how can a woman run it,’” she says.

Dr Hamroush is hopeful for the future but realistic about the pace of change. “Ours is a conservative, patriarchal, traditional society and it will not be possible to transform attitudes overnight. But what began last year was a revolution in many respects, and it will be difficult to stop or reverse what it set in train.

“We have a relatively small number of women in the government and national congress but we are more ambitious than that, I think women want to play a bigger role. With more encouragement, and when women see other women doing well in politics, a lot more will come forward.”

In some countries, feminism has been tarnished by association with the previous, predominantly secular regimes, many of which paid lip-service to the notion of women’s empowerment. But even before last year’s revolutions, a growing number of Muslim women, drawing on Islamic texts as well as international human-rights law, had begun to challenge prevailing political, social and religious mores in the region and promote the idea of active citizenship.

“It’s about making women realise their full potential,” Dr Majda Fallah told me as she campaigned for election in Tripoli in June. “They have so much to contribute.”

Last year, Soumaya Ghannoushi, an academic and daughter of the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, wrote that the Arab revolutions were not just shaking tyranny to the core, they were also shattering many of the myths about the region. “Topping the list of dominant myths are those of Arab women as caged in, silenced, and invisible,” she said, arguing that women were rebelling against narratives imposed on them either by conservative forces within their own societies or Westerners who view them as passive and oppressed. “They are seizing the reins of their own destinies by liberating themselves as they liberate their societies from dictatorship. The model of emancipation they are shaping with their own hands is one defined by their own needs, choices, and priorities – not anyone else’s.”

The Middle East A snapshot of change

TUNISIA: After nearly a month of protests in January 2011, president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees the country he had ruled for 24 years. Tunisia’s long-banned Islamist party Ennahda sweeps to power in the country’s first democratic elections.

EGYPT: After 30 years in power, Hosni Mubarak is forced from office in February 2011 following massive demonstrations against him. The army remains the most powerful element in post-Mubarak Egypt but Islamists, predominantly the Muslim Brotherhood, dominate parliament and hold the presidency.

LIBYA: Protests erupt against Muammar Gadafy in February 2011 and later tip into an armed revolt that succeeds, with the help of Nato airstrikes, in dislodging his 42-year-old regime.

Subsequently, Libya bucks a regional trend in its first elections held this summer, with Islamist parties failing to win a majority.

BAHRAIN: Saudi Arabia sends troops into Bahrain in March 2011 to prop up the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy following an uprising by the kingdom’s subjugated Shia majority. Dozens of protesters are killed and the revolt is suppressed but tensions continue.

SYRIA: In March 2011, government forces shoot dead anti-regime protesters in the southern city of Deraa, sparking an uprising across the country against President Bashar al-Assad. The estimated death toll today stands at close to 20,000 but Assad clings on amid divisions in the international community.

YEMEN: President Ali Abdullah Saleh comes under pressure after protests erupt against him in spring 2011 and continue throughout the year, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators.

In November, Saleh agrees to hand over power to his deputy who takes office after uncontested presidential elections in February.

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