Recent Resources for Feminists
Monday May 23 2016
Small Farmers Are Foundation to Food Security, Not Corporations Like Monsanto Dr. Vandana Shiva
May 22 has been declared International Biodiversity Day by the United Nations. It gives us an opportunity to become aware of the rich biodiversity that has been evolved by our farmers as co-creators with nature. It also provides an opportunity to acknowledge the threats to our biodiversity and our rights from IPR monopolies and monocultures.
Just as our Vedas and Upanishads have no individual authors, our rich biodiversity, including seeds, have been evolved cumulatively. They are a common heritage of present and future farm communities who have evolved them collectively. I recently joined tribals in Central India who have evolved thousands of rice varieties for their festival of "Akti." Akti is a celebration of the relationship of the seed and the soil and the sharing of the seed as a sacred duty to the Earth and the community.
"Why do farmers adopt Bt cotton which harms them? But farmers do not choose Bt cotton," Shiva writes. "They have to buy Bt cotton as all other choices are destroyed." (Kimberly Vardeman / Flickr)
In addition to learning about seeds from women and peasants, I had the honor to participate and contribute to international and national laws on biodiversity. I worked closely with our government in the run-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, when the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) was adopted by the international community. Three key commitments in the CBD are protection of the sovereign rights of countries to their biodiversity, the traditional knowledge of communities and biosafety in the context of genetically-modified foods.
The UN appointed me on the expert panel for the framework for the biosafety protocol, now adopted as the Cartagena protocol on biosafety. I was appointed a member of the expert group to draft the National Biodiversity Act, as well as the Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act. We ensured that farmers rights are recognized in our laws. "A farmer shall be deemed to be entitled to save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce, including seed of a variety protected under this act, in the same manner as he was entitled before the coming into force of this act", it says.
We have worked for the past three decades to protect the diversity and integrity of our seeds, the rights of farmers and resist and challenge the illegitimate IPR monopolies of companies like Monsanto which do genetic engineering to claim patents and royalties.
Patents on seeds are unjust and unjustified. A patent or any intellectual property right is a monopoly granted by society in exchange for benefits. But society has no benefit in toxic, non-renewable seeds. We are losing biodiversity and cultural diversity, we are losing nutrition, taste and quality of our food. Above all, we are losing our fundamental freedom to decide what seeds we will sow, how we will grow our food and what we will eat.
Seed as a common good has become a commodity of private seed companies. Unless protected and put back in the hands of our farmers, it is at risk of being lost forever.
Across the world, communities are saving and exchanging seeds in diverse ways, appropriate to their context. They are creating and recreating freedomfor the seed, for seed keepers and for all life and all people. When we save the seed, we also reclaim and rejuvenate knowledgethe knowledge of breeding and conservation, the knowledge of food and farming. Uniformity as a pseudo-scientific measure has been used to establish unjust IPR monopolies on seed. Once a company has patents on seeds, it pushes its patented crops on farmers in order to collect royalties.
Humanity has been eating thousands and thousands (8,500) of plant species. Today we are being condemned to eat GM corn and soya in various forms. Four primary cropscorn, soya, canola and cottonhave all been grown at the cost of other crops because they generate a royalty for every acre planted. For example, India had 1,500 different kinds of cotton, now 95 percent of the cotton planted is GMO Bt Cotton for which Monsanto collects royalties. More than 11 million hectares of land are used to cultivate cotton, of which 9.5 million hectares is used to grow Monsanto’s Bt variety.
A common question is: Why do farmers adopt Bt cotton which harms them? But farmers do not choose Bt cotton. They have to buy Bt cotton as all other choices are destroyed. Monsanto establishes its seed monopoly through three mechanisms:
1. Make farmers give up old seed, called "seed replacement" in industry jargon.These coercive, corrupt mechanisms are now falling apart. Navdanya created community seed banks and farmers have access to open pollinated, native organic seeds. The CCIR, under the leadership of Dr. Keshav Kranti, is developing native cotton varieties. Finally, the government also intervened to regulate Monsanto’s monopoly. On March 8, it passed a seed price control order regulating the price of seed under the Essential Commodities Act.
2. Influence public institutions to stop breeding. According to information received through RTI, the Central Cotton Research Institute did not release cotton varieties for Vidharba after Monsanto entered with its Bt cotton seeds.
3. Lock Indian companies into licensing agreements.
Monsanto and the biotechnology industry challenged the government order. We were impleaded in the Karnataka high court. On May 3, Justice Bopanna gave an order reaffirming that the government has a duty to regulate seed prices and Monsanto does not have a right to seed monopoly. Biodiversity and small farmers are the foundation of food security, not corporations like Monsanto which are destroying biodiversity and pushing farmers to suicide. These crimes against humanity must stop. That is why on Oct. 16, International Food Day, we will organize a Monsanto Tribunal at The Hague to "try" Monsanto for its various crimes.
Dr. Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, environmental activist and eco feminist. She is the founder/director of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology. She is author of numerous books including, Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis; Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply; Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace; and Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. Shiva has also served as an adviser to governments in India and abroad as well as NGOs, including the International Forum on Globalization, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization and the Third World Network. She has received numerous awards, including 1993 Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) and the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize.
May 22, 2016 Shaban 14, 1437 A.H.
Under-reported Pakistan: Women, working conditions & climate change
Identifying the missing stories in Pakistani media Graphic by Naseem ur Rehman
Women: Permitting violence
In Pakistan, violence against women, especially that inside the home is believed to be a private matter. Irrespective of the degree of brutality, it is considered within the parent’s right to ‘discipline’, and the husband’s right to ensure ‘obedience’.
Wrapped in a vocabulary that takes away the personhood of the victim, all means to tame her are considered permissible.
Spousal physical abuse continues in all classes of the society. Even today, Pakistani women struggle to prove that there is such a thing as marital rape. Such issues have not found their way in mainstream debates on media despite the media being dubbed as free and vibrant.
Women are still believed to be the caretakers of the shame of the family. While men are expected to bring honour to the family, women can only bring shame. This makes it necessary to mark rigid boundaries that chain women’s movements and appoint supervisors to make sure that all acts of nonconformity are dealt with.
These monitors are at most times women themselves that help perpetuate the language of violence and teach their daughters ways to endure and demonstrate an unmatched level of patience. Society and culture gradually silences women and teaches them how to work under men, and not with them.
Unless violence itself is enacted as a matter of public show, it rarely is reported. For example, reports include instances of honour killing, acid attacks and physical abuse in the form of murder or even attempted murder all forms of violence extreme and brutal.
Women rarely step out of their homes to point fingers at their own families. The guilt that women are socialised to associate with being an inferior gender legitimises violence that most victims of abuse are then subjected to. When it comes to reporting abuse, sometimes suicide is resorted to as the best alternative to speaking out.
Violence against women is a societal problem and a public health issue. Under-reporting is a result of lack of mechanisms in place to help protect and assist victims to become independent. Women that do take their cases to the court are mostly abandoned by their families. In such cases, they have little to no funds to support themselves, and also fight in court to get justice. Moreover, there are a limited number of shelter homes for survivors of abuse. The fear of not being able to find a safe shelter is one of the main reasons why women often choose to suffer silently.
Working conditions Safety first
A businessman works with the goal to make maximum profits. However, at a time when the cost of doing business has increased due to increase in input costs, businessmen ensure profitability by cutting wages.
There are issues like low wages, insecurity of job, long working hours, etc, that catch media attention. But one thing that is often overlooked is the unsafe working environment for workers in our country.
One may disagree, saying the news of victims of accidents at workplace get enough coverage in the media. But the problem is that very little media coverage is given to the circumstances that lead to such tragedies.
Shortage of labour inspectors and poor labour inspection mechanisms, are rarely discussed by the media. In case there are labour inspections, these are just formalities and the influential employers are spared.
Mass media has rarely covered the bad working conditions, including exposure to smoke, gases, toxic substances, unbearable noise, factory fires, extreme temperatures, radiations, poisonous fumes, toxic metals, chemicals or suggested precautionary measures to stop disasters from happening. Only extreme cases where human lives are lost are reported in the media and there is no mention of diseases and disabilities caused by hazardous work.
Stories of building collapse and fire at factories are reported but non-provision of safety exits and violation of building by-laws are not reported routinely. In short, events are covered but the causes leading to them are ignored.
Trade unionists who have struggled hard during their active days blame the workers of today for failing to form liaison with the media and highlight health and safety at workplace as important issues. They say that trade unionists want increase in wages, overtime, bonuses, etc, but don’t negotiate on safety issues.
Climate change Disasters in store
Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Home to some of the world’s largest glaciers, Pakistan is facing a growing threat of global warming that causes flooding and drought.
What do melting glaciers mean? What does excessive cutting of trees in the name of development mean for hapless people? What kind of disasters do we have in store? Why do we always wait for the United Nations and foreign studies to warn us about the threats we face. Both the media and government are paying little attention to this subject due to ignorance or incompetence or both.
Pakistan recently signed the Paris Agreement on climate change that commits nearly every country to lowering the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, inked the agreement. The climate change Minister, Zahid Hamid was conspicuous by his absence?
Pakistan is categorised as one of the countries that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, including droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and glacial melt. Pakistan is among the top 10 countries on the German Watch climate risk index its 5000 glaciers are retreating faster than those in any other part of the world.
Already a water-stressed country, climate change is likely to further exacerbate the challenge with increasing frequency of large floods causing huge losses to lives and livelihoods of poor people.
In November 30, 2015, the signatory states were asked in Paris to submit their respective voluntary Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) documents that explained their plans on how to cut carbon emissions at home. Amazingly, the INDCs document submitted by Pakistan was a 350-word one-pager that hardly talks about any concrete plans to fight climate change and lacks baseline data and targets.
Perhaps the government, and the media as well, has no idea what kind of disaster it is dealing with.
Sunday May 22, 2016
Why women can make the world go round
by Saba Naqvi
A recent visit to Chhattisgarh reinforced my faith in the miraculous power of women who fight against the worst odds.
Half the world's population may disagree, but let me stick my neck out and say that women are the stronger sex. A recent visit to Chhattisgarh reinforced my faith in the miraculous power of women who fight against the worst odds. First, as part of a fact finding, I met four Gondi tribal women, from Kunna village of Sukma district in Bastar who narrated their tale of being subjected to a "breast examination" by security forces. Briefly, they were rounded up and taken to the village school, surrounded by police, who then squeezed their breasts to see if they were lactating or not. This apparently is one of the advanced methods of police detection in Bastar. The reason why police lift up the blouses and squeeze women's breasts is because they believe that non lactating Adivasi women could be Maoists, while a lactating women is less likely to be.
The women who narrated this ordeal were Gondi tribals. Translators were required as the Gondi language cannot be understood by a Hindi speaker (the state does little to promote it and instead advocates Hindi among Adivasis). The first translator was a young man from the village. The women were shy and reluctant with him. It took a couple of hours before a woman was found and finally, the chilling tale was told. We were not the first people to hear it. The women had travelled long distances to tell the tale again and again. I marveled at their courage, fortitude and dignity in repeating this story of their humiliation. Presumably there is some expectation of justice and punishment down the road.
Later that night I met Sori Soni the former school teacher who was arrested and tortured and is now a known activist in Chattisgarh (some months ago her face was blackened with an acidic substance) besides being a member of AAP. She's an articulate and forceful personality but has concerns about the lack of justice that confronts women who decide to lodge a complaint. All too often the police refuse to lodge an FIR unless civil society and local politicians intervene.
As I struggled to understand the tough road to life, liberty and justice in Chattisgarh, it made me proud to see that so many women were pivots in the process. First, one must speak of Sudha Bhardawaj, trade unionist, civil rights activist and lawyer who has lived in Chattisgarh for 30 years (she was born in the US and educated in JNU). She was drawn to the late Shankar Guha Niyogi's Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, and stayed ever since, becoming a formidable figure in the state, also founder of Janhit, a lawyers collective that works on legal aid cases, and a support for anyone who wishes to engage with the various issues in the mineral rich state, from labour rights to violations of tribal lands.
It was Sudha's work and the campaign to release Dr Binayak Sen that got Shalini Gera involved in the issues of the state. After 20 years in the US she returned to India in 2010, got a law degree and in 2013, founded Jagdalpur Legal Aid group or JagLag with three other lawyers. Today, two remain, Shalini and 25-year-old Isha Khandelwal. They both lived in rented premises in Jadgalpur till they had to vacate on the night of February 20 this year after a campaign of intimidation. Around the same time, journalist Malini Subramaniam also had to leave her home in Jagdalpur after her domestic help and landlord were harassed by the police, and she was threatened by goons.
The campaign was carried out by Samajik Ekta Manch, a vigilante type outfit propped up by the police. The Manch now claims to have "dissolved" itself, after a string of recent controversies. On 26 March this year about 100 people gathered outside the home of human rights activist and researcher Bela Bhatia, another remarkable woman who engages with the state. They shouted "death to Bela Bhatia" and distributed leaflets containing defamatory allegations against Bela and her husband, the economist Jean Dreze. Bela points out that pamphlets calling her a Maoist Dalal gives sanction to anyone to do anything.
Bela's engagement with the region began in 2006 but in January 2015 she shifted, bag and baggage. She really got the hackles of the security agencies up by helping tribal women register FIRs against security personnel for gang rape and grievous sexual assault. Three such FIRS have been registered over the last few months that have the potential to embarrass both police and the state government. Bela is determined to stay on but says that at times one become conscious of the silence of the night.
There are women who do not live in Bastar, but who passionately continue to engage with the region. Arundhati Roy has written the most powerful essays describing the conflict zone and the plight of Adivasis. There's also Delhi University sociology professor Nandini Sundar, who did fieldwork for her PhD in Bastar in the early 1990s. She's been involved ever since and would go on to become one of the lead petitioners in a PIL (Nandani Sundar vs state of Chattisgarh) that would lead to the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in 2011 outlawing Salwa Judum, the name for the state sponsored and armed vigilante force.
Is it just an amazing coincidence that so many women are at the forefront of this struggle in the heart of India?
Wednesday May 11, 2016
Cases of violence against women: Is mediation the best option?By Abdul Qadir Munsef & Zarghona Salehai
KABUL (Pajhwok): Thousands of cases of violence against women are resolved annually through mediation as there is no mechanism of monitoring the process. Analysts believe mediation is a useful way to prevent the break-up of families, but the absence of a monitoring mechanism restricts registration of such complaints with courts.
The findings of Pajhwok Afghan News show that more than 21,000 cases of violence against women, including hundreds of murder incidents, have been registered over the past six years with the Ministry of Women Affairs. Ninety percent of women have been subjected to violence at least once in their lives. In five victims, four were below 30 years of age.
There are different types of violence against women in Afghanistan, where more attention has been paid to the situation of women over the past 14 years. But the problem still exists in remote rural areas.
Most women subjected to violence:
On the basis of a survey by Global Rights conducted in 2008, nine of 10 Afghan women have been subjected to some type of violence in their lifetime.
The director of human rights department at the Ministry of Women Affairs, Aziza Adalatkhwa, told Pajhwok Afghan News on April 20, 2016 that violence against women had increased, supporting the findings of the Global Rights survey.
“As Afghan society is a traditional one where violence ranges from improper behaviour to beating of women; we can say can say the report is accurate and 99 percent of women in Afghanistan have experienced some type of violence in their life.”
21,000 cases registered in 6 years
According to the Ministry of Women Affairs, although some females are facing violence, they do not take their cases to the government due social restrictions and negative customs. From 2009 to March 2016, an average of 3500 incidents of violence took place annually against women.
Regarding the lowest rate of violence in 2009 and more incidents in 2015, Aziza Adalatkhwa said sometimes insecurity hampered the registration of cases. The numbers of registered cases increased in the past year due to rising awareness among women and growing trust in the ministry.
The worse of violence
Written information that Pajhwok received from the ministry shows women are beaten frequently. But the worst types of violence are murder, rape, giving off girls as a dispute settlement mechanism, and abductions. Forty-three types of violence have been documented by the ministry.
The Afghanistan Central Statistics Organisation estimates the population of the country at 28.6 million -- half of them females. While looking at the number of incidents of violence against women over the past six years, one can easily conclude one in 681 women registered their cases with the government.
Courage of young women
A report released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN High Commission for Human Rights in April 2015 says the cases of violence against 110 women were referred to the judiciary. They followed the cases from their registration to final verdicts and mediation.
The report showed that nearly 70 percent of cases were registered with the departments of women affairs and police and less than five percent with courts. And most of the cases have been reported by young women.
According to Adalatkhwa, the Ministry of Women Affairs assisted UNAMA in preparing the report. Violence took place against women of different ages, but most of the cases were reported by women under 30, because they have less patience and more courage.
Resolution of cases
The UNAMA report said most of the cases were addressed through mediation under a women protection law and the rest by non-governmental entities in traditional ways. The findings of the report say fewer cases were resolved by courts.
The findings showed perpetrators of violence in cases have been brought to justice. Lack of access to judicial departments, lengthy litigation, widespread corruption in courts and inefficiency force women to go for mediation.
According to the report, people have limited access to their legal rights and facilities -- a key challenge that prevents for women from getting justice. In some parts of the country, governmental and nongovernmental entities provide legal facilities for women, but they are unaware due to illiteracy and inadequate civic education.
A Supreme Court official, who did not want to be named, said courts had been tracking cases of domestic violence. He rejected as false allegations that courts had their own limitations. Without presenting any figures, he said the victims did not move courts because the Ministry of Women Affairs, the Attorney General Office and related organs resettled such cases.
The best option
Some families approach the ministry for mediation in violence cases, calling it the best way of resolving the problem. A 45 years old man said on condition of anonymity they referred to the ministry the tiff between him and his spouse. “Mediation is like sweet water with a healing touch.”
He married a second time a year ago. His first wife with four children has gone to her father’s house. “It was destined to have second wife, but I still love my first spouse and don’t want my children to be deprived of father’s love. Mediation led to ending our spat.”
But a woman, who moved the ministry in a similar case, said she had been insulted and beaten for three years by her husband and mother-in-law over the past three years. She is now living in her father along with her child over the past three months.
“I don’t want to spoil my life and deprive my child of father’s love. But my husband should mend his ways and realise his mistakes. If he does so, our issue will become negotiable,” she observed.
Her husband, who also visited the ministry, agreed to mediation, but he did not want to talk to Pajhwok Afghan News on the issue.
Adalatkhwa said if issues were not serious, they met both sides of family disputes to mediate between them and prevent separation. Mediation had produced fruitful results, she claimed.
Women’s role in mediation
Women also play as an effective role as men in mediating addressing cases of violence.
An employee of the Planning Department of the ministry, LatifaAini who has more than 12 years of experiences in dealing with family issues, said: “I have taken responsibility for mediation on issues facing my relatives and friends. I worked for two years with an NGO to mediate on family issues. I twice addressed the cases of violence against women at the ministry. I am happy and feel lucky to have rescued dozens of youth from being harmed.”
Although she studied economics, Aini has learnt from her father, a judge of the Supreme Court, how to resolve an issue. “When I went to the ministry a year ago, a betrothed boy and girl came seeking separation. Via mediation by me, both of them changed their mind. It was a good memory for me.”
Mediation by women was more effective than by men in such issues, she said, adding many families preferred women as mediators with whom they could better interact, because women were kind-hearted.
Latifa insisted female victims of violence preferred women to handle their cases because they could easily share their stories with them without any hesitation. It was why mediation by women produced better results, she maintained.
Elders as mediators
Some cases of violence against women have been resolved by tribal elders and family members without being referred to government departments. Haji Mohammad Tahir, 80, a resident of the Karta-i-Naw area of Kabul, said he had been able to address many such cases in his neighborhood.
One of his good memories concerns intercession on behalf of a six years old girl, wanted separation from her husband. As a result of efforts by him and other elders, the dispute between the couple was successfully resolved.
A jihadi commander in the Chak district of central Maidan Wardak province, Ali Marjan, said he had also played a key role in resolving such cases. Mediation is important because local elders and victims’ relatives better appreciated the sensitivity of the issue, he reasoned.
However, he admitted: “At times, wrong decisions are taken… In order to prevent such decisions, it is better to involve religious scholars in addition to tribal elders in mediation of such cases. By doing so, all decisions will be in accordance with the Islamic Sharia.”
Need for monitoring
A lecturer in law and political science at Kabul University, Shahla Farid, told Pajhwok Afghan News she was in favour of resolving cases of violence through mediation because family members were not affected in the process.
However, she believed greater attention should be paid to referring the issues to professional and informed individuals, because there was a possibility of wrong decision taken in this way.
She agreed some decisions were made by people with no experience or expertise in mediation. Since implementation of the decisions was not properly monitored, the teacher explained, many women were affected.
The lack of monitoring resulted in women being subjected of violence for a second time, she admitted, saying the issues referred to the ministry were sorted out by professional individuals. But she was not sure whether the ministry followed the situation later on.
According to Adalatkhwa, most of registered cases have been addressed by the ministry through mediation. She said there is no specific mechanism of mediation, but at the primary stage, each side is counseled by professionals.
Some non-governmental entities processed the cases unprofessionally, she alleged, acknowledging the ministry could not properly monitor the cases resolved due to lack of staff and resources.
Sunday Magazine ~ May 15, 2016
After the Arab springBy Vaishna Roy
'Egyptian women were the secret behind the success of the last two revolutions'. Evenings come alive at the Khan el-Khalili souk in old Cairo (Vaishna Roy)
A hundred days into its new Parliament, and Egypt seems to be settling down into a slightly edgy peace tempered by pragmatism and lots of sheesha
Dalia Youssef is wearing a midnight blue sari and bangles that look like gunghrus. She has just been recognised as a “woman of substance” at a function held at the Indian Embassy in Cairo by Ambassador Sanjay Bhattacharyya. Youssef is one of a record 89 women in Egypt’s new Parliament, which has just completed 100 days. “This is a golden era for Egyptian women,” she says at an interview later that evening, sparkling with enthusiasm. Not many of her compatriots might go so far, but one still smells the sweet fragrance of hope in a country battered by dismal economics.
There’s a foreign currency crunch and ballooning fiscal deficit, but the most obvious face of the crisis for visitors is, of course, the dramatic decline in tourism. Giza on a weekend is deserted; shop fronts are festooned with forlorn belly-dancer outfits and dusty galabiyas; and in Cairo Museum we can spend all the time we want with King Tut. Accounting in 2010 for almost 12 per cent of GDP at USD 13 billion, tourism is now a mere USD 6 billion. Political clashes, the murdered Italian student Giulio Regeni, and finally the crash of the Russian plane in Sinai; they’ve all played a role.
But Egypt is fighting back, looking at Bulgaria, Latin America, India and China for arrivals. Adel El Masry, director, International Tourism Department, says he wants to boost Indian arrivals by 30-35 per cent. Already, we see straggly Indian and Chinese tour groups, the latter incessantly striking profile-picture poses. Egypt loves Bollywood, so Indians are greeted with a familiarity bred in movie halls. Salmaniac fan clubs are legion, Indian soap stars I haven’t heard of are household names, and 3,000 Egyptians play Holi each year.
The Desert Road from Cairo to Alexandria is flanked by giant hoardings of stylish women in off-shoulder evening gowns sipping mango juice or buying insurance. The sands have been reclaimed for miles on end by warehouses, factories, Carrefours and housing estates. This massive infrastructure investment and urban expansion helped Egypt limp back to a 4.2 per cent growth in 2014-15; double that of the previous four years.
This is perhaps why everyone from taxi drivers to journalists to shopkeepers is still keeping faith with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, their sixth president, who might rule with the proverbial rod but who has brought much-needed peace after the two revolutions of 2011 and 2013.
‘Stability’ is the magic mantra. It has convinced many citizens to overlook the absence of some essentials of a liberal democracy that could otherwise have made them restive. In the week leading up to April 25, the date celebrating the liberation of Sinai from Israel, there was palpable unhappiness and some protests against the return by President Sisi of two islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia. Dissidents and journalists were, however, arrested in a pre-emptive exercise, with only the weekly Al-Ahram gently criticising this silencing.
There were rumours of a demonstration on April 24, but when we, a band of visiting journalists, walked up to Tahrir Square, it was just another balmy evening with children buying balloons and families drinking kahwa on the grass. We sat down with our own glasses. But we had been seen filming and talking with locals, and suddenly a posse of policemen descended and whisked us off to a courtyard two streets away where a senior officer sat drinking tea. It took much talking and displaying of government invitations before we were let go, albeit with a shadow who tailed us through that evening. The government is clearly skittish, but the anxiety that the rag-tag opposition might yet fuel another millioniya (million-man march) is shared by most citizens, and they rationalise that the President is just being “careful”.
There’s a general sense of wanting to give Sisi a fair shot at getting Egypt back on the rails. Mohamed Elmasry, writing in The Egyptian Gazette, talks of how power cuts and queues for bread and fuel have practically disappeared, and the streets are safe again. Hassanein Mahmoud, a student of History and a guide, explains, “We wanted to give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to rebuild Egypt. But they kept talking about Paradise. We want a government that shows us material difference now; the hereafter will take care of itself.”
Religion, he continues, is between him and god. “Let the government worry about roads, industry and jobs.” It’s significant that this is being voiced in a country which has a considerable number of Salafists, and which gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, which in turn spawned dozens of Islamic fundamental groups. But within Egypt, such groups have always been forced to live underground. When they did surface, as in 2013, it didn’t last long. Youssef says, “I think our culture is repulsive of fundamentalism.”
Women like her are pushing the envelope further. In 2014, Egypt got a new Constitution, which unequivocally states that men and women are equal. Previously, they were held to be equal if it did not conflict with the Shariat. The victory was followed by another this year, when Egypt enacted one of the most remarkable reforms in the Muslim world granting women the same right of divorce as men. Only Tunisia in the region allows both men and women to end a marriage.
According to Youssef, Egyptian women were the secret behind the last two revolutions, and came from all walks of life mothers, wives, students and businesswomen. “It was Ramadan. I remember we would go down to Tahrir Square and we would sit on the pavement and share our food. The cause drove us. Even women who would never participate, women from high society, even they came,” she says, eyes glittering with emotion.
Youssef ran for elections from a village 60 km north of Cairo in the Monufia governorate, becoming the first woman from her district to win. This year, Egypt initiated a one-time coalition arrangement under which men, women, youth and disabled people fought under one banner, thus creating an extremely diverse Parliament. But diversity brings its own problems: with 19 parties, 361 independents and no simple majority, there are in effect 380 different agendas, with much debate and little consensus. Clearly, they are still trying to find their feet. As Youssef says, “We have over 100 parties but none of them yet has the confidence of the street.”
Despite these teething troubles, one thing comes through clearly. Egyptians are fiercely proud that they threw out fundamentalism, seeing their country as a sort of last stand against extremist Islam. You see couples wearing tight jeans and cuddling along the Nile. You can wander the streets at midnight and eat feteer from a streetside kiosk. Men and women smoke sheesha endlessly in the crowded coffee houses, and the fashionable party till 4:00 am. al-Qahira, the victorious city, is alive and awake well into the night.
The writer was in Egypt by invitation of the Egyptian tourism department.
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