Saturday, March 17, 2012

Challenges faced by women of the Arab Revolutions Egypt,Tunisia, Libya by Lesley Abdela


‘We have had revolts, but not yet revolutions.’ Prominent Mahgreb activist, Rabea Naciri.

Just in case anyone is still unaware of the immense part women played in the Arab uprisings, here’s a quick reminder. Defying their stereotype as victims of oppressive patriarchies, women made their presence a defining feature of the Arab awakening uprisings in the front-lines and in support roles.  Women marched, chanted, ‘rabble-roused’, organised, provided medical support, raised funds,  blogged,  were spokespersons, smuggled ammunition, went on hunger-strike, protected their men-folk and families,  suffered abuse, beatings, kickings, rape and torture.  Some were murdered.

At the height of the revolutions men welcomed women as partners in the struggle for democracy.  But once the dictators were ousted, men pushed women right out of the picture.

It went from this…………………………

 Reuters

And this……………………………………….

to this……………………………………………….

And this……………………….


Arab Spring Transition Governments and new Governments have been predominantly male. Women have been given minimal opportunity to participate. 

Politics and religion have become closely intertwined. 

The  overwhelming victory of Ennada in the Tunisian elections and the Muslim brotherhood and Salafis in the Egyptian elections have sparked fears among many women about negative  consequences for women’s rights and Gender equality, especially  Family Status legislation . For example the law on polygamy has re-appeared on the agenda after many years absence.[1] 

Gender balance in elections and politics

In post-revolution elections there were positive discrimination practices in favour of male candidates.  Most women’s names were placed low down on candidate lists where they had no chance to win. If women are not elected in sufficient numbers they are denied a voice in deciding on reforms to Constitutions and legislation which concern their countries‘ entire future.

Women’s rights in Constitutions

A challenge in each country is how to get women’s Human Rights rights enshrined. Once women’s rights are guaranteed in a Constitution they can be fought for in the courts of justice over the years ahead.

Opportunities
Women are fighting back. The mushrooming of new Civil Society organisations and Social Media offers opportunities to bring about progress on Gender equality and women’s rights. Women’s organisations also offer uparalleled useful sources for journalists who want to keep abreast of day-to-day developments. They should form an important part of every journalist’s list of contacts.  


We may see a regaining of self-confidence in Arab countries harnessed to divert the argument away from the mistaken perception that Gender equality and women’s rights are a Western and alien concept towards that of a home-grown tomato in the region.

‘Women in Arab nations who have put their safety on the line are the true heroes.  Each of these women is making us realise that change can happen. But it isn't going to be easy. That is probably the biggest message coming from the Arab Spring. Women are trying to impact and change the caretakers of corrupt overnment.’ Blogger Lys Anzia.[2]
Getting women’s voices heard

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Egyptian activist: Feb 2012 [3
'In the immediate aftermath of the revolutions there was a great interest in women’s rights, but now you hardly see a mention of women’s rights and women’s participation.’ Rabea Naciri. [4] 

The major challenge for women?  Getting women’s  voices heard in discussions. As post- revolution countries turn their attention to new Constitutions, elections, new governments, new Parliaments, amended legislation, Family status laws, and security system reforms, the public debates and decisions in the Media appear to be  for  ‘men only’

Women’s rights have been deliberately equated with the old dictatorships as a way of making any discussion on the topic socially unacceptable.  Lawyer Ahlem Belhaj, President of Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, says. ‘Partly, it's a reaction to the way the former regime used women's rights, and partly it's a concession to the Islamists. There is a lack of any debate about women's rights, certainly not in terms of how to take them forward.’[5]

TUNISIA - CHALLENGES WOMEN FACE
Pre-revolutionary Tunisia was perceived as brand-leader on women’s rights in the region.  Polygamy  became illegal, women had equal divorce rights, abortion is legal and two-thirds of university students are female. There was a minimum quota of at least 25% women in Parliament.

Despite these legal rights, women suffered under the dictatorship from the same fear and oppression as men. From the start Tunisian women were active alongside men in the uprising that ended the rule of Zine Abidine Ben Ali.  In January 2011 an article in Muslimah Media Watch noted there was little Media mention of the women who took part in the protests in Tunisia, nor of the victims of the security forces response, such as the woman who was shot and killed in Nabeul.’[6]


Lebanese blogger Mustapha contrasted Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in which the image of young progressive women became image symbols.  He described how Tunisia’s revolution paid little importance to circulating images of ‘liberated’ women. To make his point he posted the compilation picture above.

In April 2011 the Tunisia National Council for the Protection of the Revolution, a body created to oversee the transition process, announced that 50% of candidates fielded by every Party must be female. Some 45 per cent of the 3.8 million Tunisians who registered to vote were women. Over half the 1.7 million women who signed up were between the ages of 21 and 30. 
Tunisia  Challenges ahead
Tunisian women fear rights  gained over the past five decades could be swept away by a tide of social conservatism which has triggered  debate on topics that have long been taboo such as family status, polygamy and the argument that women should stay at home as a solution to unemployment.  The October 2011 elections did not meet the consequent high expectations for Gender parity.

The percentage of elected women dropped from 26.3% before the revolution to 22%. 49 women were elected to the Constitutional assembly of 217 seats.[7]The Islamist Party Ennahda won the elections with more than 41% of the votes. Lawyer Bushra Belhaj Hemeida is concerned about the discourse Ennahda has been using through its Media outlets, like the Party’s official paper al-Fajr, or the Media in general.  She says, “Part of this discourse is slandering modernists and liberals.” [8]

Egypt - Women in the Revolution

‘We did everything. There was no difference between men and women.  ALL of us were there, throwing stones, moving dead bodies.’ Egyptian activist, Asmaa Mahfouz.[9]

As a woman in Tahrir, I truly felt like I was in a new country, a new Egypt. I marched amidst thousands of men and not once did I get harassed, or feel threatened in any way. Some women showed up alone, some with friends and some with their children and husbands. The men in Tahrir were polite and welcoming to all the women who showed up to protest. I spoke with many women who spent nights in Tahrir, on the ground or in tents, alongside unrelated men. Not one said that she felt threatened in any way. For many of these women, myself included, this total absence of sexual harassment was a surprise – indeed, a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights says that no less than 83% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment. Our experience in Tahrir gave us hope that this sad state of affairs was changing.“ Anthopologist Yasmin Moll who made the film The Women of Tahrir. [10]
An estimated  40%  of the protesters in Tahrir Square were women.
In addition to rabble-rousing, protesting, and acting as spokespersons, women organised food deliveries, blankets, and medical help.  A feature of the Egyptian Revolution was the gradual mobilization of ordinary women who had no previous history of political involvement. They saw themselves as agents of change for a better future, a better Egypt.  Women organised a million woman march to coincide with International Women’s Day 2011.  Among their key demands - female input into the new Constitution and legislative changes for Gender equality.[11]
  [14]
Human Security Violations
On March 9th 2011 protesters returned to Tahrir Square to restate their calls for freedom, justice and equality. The army arrested scores of demonstrators. Local activists reported that the women protesters in custody were beaten and forced by the to undergo ‘virginity checks’.[12] The women were threatened with prostitution charges if they were found not to be virgins.[13]In December 2011 photographs and video footage of security forces beating and stripping the woman in the blue brashocked the world and became part of the iconography of the Transition.
Egypt - challenges ahead
Accountability
One of the challenges is how to get accountability from those responsible for violations. Thousands of women marched in protest at the ‘virginity testing’ and the brutal beating and kicking of the ‘blue bra’ woman.  However, female members of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as sisters, denounced the protest. They portrayed the women who marched as agents of foreign manipulation, a description often used by the military itself and the Brotherhood to disparage women’s dissent.


 Photo:  Manar Ammar[15]
Woman with anti-military poster at women's protest march.
A major challenge is how to get women’s rights, non-discrimination and Gender Equality on to the socio-political agenda from which they are absent. Former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak helped push through laws banning female genital mutilation and allowing women to become judges. These laws still stand, but are tainted by those demonising association of women’s rights with the former regime. This is unfortunate, says Hoda Badran, head of the Alliance for Arab Women. ‘They weren’t Suzanne Mubarak’s laws. She gave a little push towards the end, but we did the work.’

Egyptian women’s groups have been vociferous with petitions and conferences about women’s rights in the Constitution. The Egyptian Constitution outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sex, yet women are entitled to inherit only half as much as men. Husbands may divorce their wives in moments in front of a civil servant. Women endure lengthy court proceedings to do the same.  A woman who remarries loses the right to custody of her children. 
The Members of the Council deciding on the new Constitution were all men. The Arab Media (possibly unwittingly) reinforced the all-male approach to the Constitution. For example Hesham Sallam’s lengthy article titled ‘Return of Identity Politics’ looked at support for and against the Constitutional amendments.  He mentioned religious- oriented groups and secular groups but made no mention at all of women.[16]

Elections

One of the first steps by Egyptian Leaders after President Mubarak was toppled was the removal in May 2011 of a quota of seats reserved for female candidates first introduced in 1979.[17] In the Egyptian Post - Revolution election 376 women were candidates. This was a third of all candidates. Party Leaders placed women candidate names very low on the candidates' lists where they had virtually no chance of getting elected. [18] The number of women in Parliament plummeted to 9 women out of 508 Members of Parliament compared to 68 women in the previous Parliament. After the first elections the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis control more than 70% of Parliamentary seats.
Women are seeking their own ways to participate in political life. ‘Gigi’, has taken up a video camera to record poverty and social injustices in her country. She says "Women want their rights respected on divorce, maternity issues and custody of children." Television presenter Bothaina Kamel is running for President. She says, "People have come up to me and asked, 'Is it even legal for a woman to run?' I hope to set a trend, to open a door. A girl sent me a Twitter: 'You have given us a chance to dream”.”[19]

For the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution Sue Lloyd Robert’s documentary on the BBC Newsnight programme gave comprehensive coverage of Egyptian women one year on. One item showed women in Alexandria setting up an alternative ‘Women’s Parliament’ in response to the low numbers of women in Parliament. 

Libya - Women in the revolution

‘Women took on the role of the state. They were feeding people, they were taking people to the hospitals, they were nurses, doctors, they were financiers, they sold their gold, they transported weapons, they made weapons at home, they financed the freedom fighters.’ Shahrazad Kablan, a Benghazi-born teacher and activist, presenter of a show on Free Libya television.
It was Libyan women who triggered the uprising against the dictator Muammar Gaddafi on 15 February 2011. Gaddafi’s security forces opened fire on the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters demonstrating outside Abou Salem prison demanding the truth about 1200 detainees executed by Gaddafi in 1996.  

During the stuggle to oust Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan women in the diaspora and in Libya  raised funds, sent medicines, blogged, tweeted, lobbied, provided logistic information to NATO for the bombing,  and acted as spokespersons to the Media. Youtube footage shows women protesters in Derna calling for Gadaffi to go.[21] 
In Rana Jawad’s  programme on BBC World Service Radio ‘Knitting in Tripoli’ about the Libyan resistance movement in the struggle against Gadaffi, one woman described how she regularly smuggled ammunition in her handbag to the Resistance fighters.

Violations

Libyan charities reported that in the west of the country Muammar Gaddafi's forces raped women and girls in front of their fathers and brothers. Libyan aid workers said women and girls who became pregnant through rape risked being murdered by their own families in so-called "honour killings". The charity World for Libya engaged imams across the border in Tunisia to preach that rape is not the victim's fault

Libya challenges ahead
I tweet from the conference here in Libya, saying that the former interim leader Abdel-Jalil is admonished by the women for his comments on polygamy. One woman tells him she intends to be prime minister and she isn’t asking permission. The frustration among Libyan women is palpable. They were key in the success of the revolution, and the newly formed government has not adequately represented them in political appointments nor included them in high-level delegations and meetings or other decision-making roles.” Journalist Farah Abushwesha writing in the Irish Times.[22]

ibya is in a state of rebirth for Human Rights and governance institutions.  There have never been more than 2 women at one time on the Transition Government which was composed at various times of some 30 – 60 members. In the Transition Libyan women have mobilised, formed NGOs, arranged conferences, held meetings around the country and set up women’s centres. They have lobbied Libyan and international officials and politicians. They have used e-mail,  web-sites, Facebook and skype-cons to coordinate advocacy efforts. They want women’s participation in setting  the new election laws, new Constitution, policies.

Libyan women also want changes  at basic levels such as  addressing  violence, the psychological effects on women caused by the loss of family members and the high rate of illiteracy among women.





[1] http://www.economist.com/node/21532256?frsc=dg%7Ca
[2] January 2012 http://vitalvoices.org/blog/2012/01/womens-voices-arab-spring-lys-anzia
[3] CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2012/02/20/world/africa/egypt-ngos/index.html?iref=allsearch
[4] Speaking at the December 2011 EMHRN meeting in Tunis.
[5] Al Arabiya on-line article by ‘Amal al-hilali.’
[6] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/2011/01/women-in-tunisias-revolution/
[7] Article by Yasmine Ryan h Aljazeera 11 August 2011 .Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/08/201181617052432756.html
[9] Women and Arab awakening. The Economist - 15 October 2011.
[11] Sarah Carr. The Guardian newspaper - 7 March 2011.
[12] Women and Arab awakening. The Economist - 15 October 2011. See full article .
[13] http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/
[15]http://bikyamasr.com/51240/egypt-women-march-against-military-violence-against-them/
[16] http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1728/reflections-on-egypt-after-march-19
[17] www.trust.org/trustlaw/news/egypts-women?-flock-to-vote-but-risk-lacking-Parliamentary-seats-campaigners.Trustlaw is a one-stop shop for news and information on anti-corruption and women’s rights.
[20] BBC Newsnight. Presenter Sue Lloyd Roberts. 15 February 2012
[21] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=URoAm8NT6Ts
[22]‘One Voice women’s conference’ Nov 2011 She is an activist with Women4Libya (W4L), a civil-society group.

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