MIDDLE EAST/NORTH AFRICA: Women Must Continue to Move the Battlefront

Sunday, March 20, 2011
The Jamaica Gleaner
Northern Africa
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

At this juncture in human history, women and girls who have lived under some of the most repressive regimes might be afforded the window of opportunity to be released from traditions that have robbed them of the ability to develop to their fullest potential.

In the CNN-ised global village, we all stood in awe and disbelief when we viewed the dramatic political and social changes that taking place in North Africa and the Middle East.

We have seen the spontaneous coming together of a wide cross section of citizens to topple the governments of Tunisia and Egypt. We have also seen the testosterone- driven armies of Libya's Gaddafi murder ordinary citizens and all those who dare to oppose their leader.

There have also been multisectoral uprising against the oppressive regimes of Yemen, Iran, Bahrain and other territories in the region.

The common theme of all these resistances to patriarchy is the search for what has been described as true democracy.

The commonsense and lay persons' understanding of the term democracy, in both the East and the West, is the idea that equality and freedom are the cornerstones of any society that claims to be democratic in the 21st century.

This world view is rooted in the American President Abraham Lincoln's notion of "government of the people, by the people, for the people".

When the philosophers and rulers of the 17th and 18th centuries formulated their ideas of democracy, they must have forgotten that the people are women, men and children.

This would have meant that the human rights of each of these groups would have been served and would have been translated in equal rights and true freedom in every society in the modern world.

Now that the citizens of Northern Africa and the Middle East have taken a stance against oppression and overthrown two very powerful regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the women of the region have to be vigilant and put in place all the strategies that will ensure that they will be free in the new democracies.

For instance, it will be interesting to see if any real change occurs in Yemen after the people have been so courageous in taking to the streets to achieve what their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia have accomplished.

It is clear that in Yemen, the citizens are searching for a democracy that will free them from grinding poverty, ill health and illiteracy.

In a 1991 Oxfam publication titled Changing Perception: Writings on Gender and Development, writer Liz Gascoigne detailed the reality of the lives of women in Yemen.

She argued that in this patriarchal and conservative nation state, the majority of women are protected and their social mobility restricted in order to preserve the honour of the family.

In other words, a woman has to be accompanied by a man when she goes outside her private space. In this type of society, the woman's primary role is connected to her reproductive capacity. She is valued as the producer of the next generation and, along with the child-bearing expectations, she is to be occupied in subsistent food production, the making of clothes for all members of the family, and other related activities deemed necessary to support the family.

While urban women and those attached to powerful men have better lives than their rural counterpart, the reality is that every woman and girl in Yemen learn very early that the possibility of equal participation in the public sphere of politics or the management of the state would be almost an impossibility.

In spite of this anti-woman culture and tradition, young men and women and other progressive sectors of Yemen have, in 2011, started to challenge the patriarchs who have come to take them for granted.

The people of Yemen are crying out for freedom and justice in line with their understanding of a democratic society.

In the same vein, many citizens of Iran have been challenging the patriarchal and repressive regime that has for too long been restricting the basic human rights of ordinary men and women.

Extremely harsh

In the case of the status of women, Iran, a conservative Islamic state, is extremely harsh on the female of the species.

In the September 8, 2010 edition of The Globe and Mail, it was reported that the Iranian authorities suspended the death sentence by stoning of a woman convicted of adultery.

This decision was made by the court after weeks of condemnation of the Iranian state by thousands of people across the world.

Outraged men and women challenged the barbarity of the planned stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was accused of adultery, which is a capital crime in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Other capital crimes punishable by death are murder, rape, armed robbery, apostasy and drug trafficking.

Any analysis of the situation of women in the hot spots of North Africa and the Middle East will reveal many horror stories about the treatment of women, even in countries that are respected by Western democracies.

Egypt is the best example of such countries.

This writer was particularly interested in and excited by the revolutionary spirit that brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo. These citizens came together to take a stance against a patriarchal regime that lasted for 30 years.

Sexual harassment

Under Hosni Mubarak, sexual harassment of women who ventured out of their homes, especially in Cairo, had become the norm. In fact, it is reported that middle-class women refused to venture out in the cities on their own. It is instructive to note that both veiled and unveiled women were equally harassed.

Through their involvement in the successful 2011 historic revolution, the women of Egypt are now presented with a real opportunity to ensure that they are not left behind in the brave new world of democracy that the crowds in Cairo and Alexandria struggled so valiantly to achieve.

In the March 5, 2011 edition of The New York Times, writer Sharon Otterman, reporting from Cairo, reminded her readers of the following facts:

1. The recent revolution in Egypt was the work of men and women represented by housewives, fruit sellers, businesswomen and students.
2. Veiled and unveiled women - Muslims and Christians - shouted, 'fought and slept in the streets alongside men'.
3. These women broke all the traditional barriers and dared to occupy a space that was once the prerogative of the male.
4. No one is naive enough to believe that women will automatically be allowed to gain equal rights in the new Egyptian society for which they sacrificed so much.

Otterman argues that feminists acknowledge that the battle for equality will not be easy, but the women who have experienced the excitement of Tahrir Square know that they have the power to move the battlefront and change their circumstances by insisting on a democracy that respects the right of every woman to demand dignity and freedom to participate at all levels of Egyptian.

Indeed, the struggle must continue until every woman and every man is free from the restrictions of gender stereotyping and the resultant repression of the human spirit.