MIDDLE EAST/NORTHERN AFRICA: New Regimes Need Women's Voices

Sunday, March 6, 2011
The Chronicle Herald
Northern Africa
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Peace Processes
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Nawara Belal dreamt of an Egypt where men and women stood side-by-side. Last month, she lived that dream in Tahrir Square.

"In moments of happiness, we had our total right to dance or sing or hug each other and men," she told us, recalling the pro-democracy protests. "In moments of fear or disappointment, we were not excluded."

Belal and thousands of Egyptians were called to action by a 26-year-old woman named Asmaa Mahfouz. She posted a Facebook video calling on people to head to Tahrir Square and demand an end of the regime of president Hosni Mubarak.

As Belal and thousands of others demonstrated, the program officer with Nazra for Feminist Studies, a Cairo-based women's rights organization, watched gender disparities vanish before her eyes.

In solidarity with men in Tahrir, small cultural norms were skewed. Women smoked in public and cared little about their dress. Then, in this predominantly Muslim country, men and women defied modesty by sleeping together in the street and clutching each other in jubilation when Mubarak stepped down.

But now, Belal fears the old Egypt will return, an Egypt where 91 per cent of women between 15 and 49 experience some form of genital mutilation, according to 2008 figures. It's a country where more than half of women say they have experienced sexual harassment. For years, girls have been kept from school under a patriarchal system. The literacy rate among females is 59.7 per cent compared to 83.3 per cent in men.

In past columns, we've written that a nation can't achieve its full potential with one arm tied behind its back. Usually, this has been in relation to the horrendous treatment of women by oppressive regimes in the Middle East.

For 100 years, International Women's Day, an event we mark on Tuesday, has honoured the strength of this oft-shackled arm. On this important anniversary, we need to celebrate this recent show of muscle and ensure women achieve freedom from oppression.

"Our sincerest hope is that we are remembered as Women of the Revolution, the women who changed the history of their country as much as their fellow men," says Belal.

Women in the Middle East face some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. In Yemen, child marriages have led to early pregnancies, domestic violence and death among young girls. In Saudi Arabia, women can't vote, drive or leave home without a niqab.

Even in the more progressive nation of Tunisia, women have reported the threat of rape when campaigning for political and social reforms.

But in December, after a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in protest of harassment at the hands of municipal officers, past abuses fanned the flames of civil disobedience.

Women spoke out on Facebook and in public squares. One in particular sang in the streets of Tunis, "I am those who are free and never fear," to a silent crowd. Via YouTube, her song was carried across the desert to Cairo. Within weeks, a new revolution was born.

Mahfouz wanted to build from Tunisia's momentum in her own country. Women were inspired by her words and turned out en masse. Then, as tensions escalated between security forces and protesters, they emerged as symbols of peace.

After staring down a line of security, one woman posed for a picture, kissing a riot officer on the cheek.

"Even the most conservative women participated," says Belal of the Egyptian protests. "They even talked and chanted with men under a sense of belonging and solidarity."

No one can deny this sentiment. Libyan despot Moammar Gadhafi last week even urged his supporters to "fight to the last man, and the last woman."

But, many women wonder what will happen to their newfound freedom in the coming months.

Since Mubarak stepped down, Belal and Nazra for Feminist Studies have used the social networking tactics of the revolution to partner with other women's rights groups.

They've worked to completely dispel the old regime from power by calling for the dissolution of Egypt's National Council of Women, an agency still presided over by members of Mubarak's cabinet. Now, they're demanding representation in the new constitution, a document being drafted by a committee of eight men.

Last week, the Egyptian Coalition for Civic Education and Women's Participation reviewed the amendments and publicly identified points (including one stating that the new president "cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman") that need to be more inclusive of women.

Women, after all, helped create this fledgling democracy. They will not sit idly by and let men develop it.

That's why on Women's Day, we need to honour those who unshackled themselves, ensuring the chains never go back on.