Arab Women brave the streets & the record books to claim their revolutionary roles & entitlements Print E-mail
 London ~ Thursday 14 June 2012, page 22

Arab women fight to keep gains won on the street

Some members of Egypt's first freely elected parliament are pressing to scrap laws that protect women

Chris McGreal in Washington

Scroll down to also readHer-story, not his"
Egyptians celebrate the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. But now women are attacked in Tahrir Square. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP)

When Yemen's long-term dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to silence Tawakkul Karman, he called in her brother.

Karman was in prison for her part at the forefront of the popular revolution against Saleh's rule, a role that earned her the Nobel peace prize. The president's warning to Karman's brother was blunt. "Saleh told him a clear message: if you don't restrain your sister, whoever disobeys me will be killed," she said. "My brother told me the day I was released from prison. The next morning I went protesting."

The threat says much about Saleh, who was finally toppled in February. But his attempt to use Karman's brother to silence her says something about Yemeni society and other countries across the Arab world where women were in the vanguard of revolutions – joining protests en masse, facing bullets and being killed – looking for more than solely political emancipation.

"The most important thing the Arab spring brought us was to give women leadership roles," said Karman. "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."

Karman was among several women who played leading roles in uprisings across the Arab world who gathered in Washington recently for a meeting of Vital Voices, a group founded in 1997 by the then first lady Hillary Clinton to empower female leaders. There was agreement that the revolutions freed millions from dictatorship but are delivering only limited gains in the struggle for women's equality – and in some cases are threatening to set back the advances already made.

This week Clinton, who is now US secretary of state, said women's rights in newly liberated Arab countries were a test of whether the revolutions were living up to their promise.

"One of the important indicators as to how the whole process of democratisation, political reform, economic reform is going is the way that the newly formed governments and their allies in the various countries treat women," said Clinton. "To that end, there's mixed news. There's some positive news in that there are certain guarantees put forth about women's rights and opportunities. But there are some worrying actions that certainly don't match those guarantees."

The challenge was demonstrated at the weekend in Cairo's Tahrir square, the crucible of the Egyptian revolution, as hundreds of men attacked women demonstrating for an end to sexual harassment and assaults. Marianne Nagui Hanna Ibrahim was among the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in the square last year for the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak.

"During the 18 days against Mubarak there were no women and men. It was just Egyptians in danger. I was in the square almost daily and I didn't witness a single case of sexual harassment.

"But that changed after Mubarak stepped down. We were back to face the reality of where we are as Egyptian women," she said. "We're not a priority even with fellow revolutionaries. They're just thinking of the political change but no one is thinking of setting the rules for basic rights including women's rights. I think because even the activists don't really consider women's rights part of the larger concept of human rights, which is a huge issue."

The setbacks are not only on the street. Some members of Egypt's first freely elected parliament, in which the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest party, are pressing to scrap laws that protect women on the grounds that they were introduced by the Mubarak regime and are therefore illegitimate.

"We're going years backwards when it comes to women's issues. One MP wanted to discuss cancelling the ban on female genital mutilation. Another proposed reducing the age of marriage to 12 for girls. Another wanted to cancel the law giving the right to Muslim women to initiate divorce. If this is how the Egyptian parliament is after the revolution we have a serious problem," Ibrahim said. "We know the Muslim Brotherhood agenda. We're not worried that they're likely to force us to wear veils. I'm thinking more on the deeper level because they consider women as second class. You can see it from their speeches and statements on television. They're always talking about morals, virtues, family. They want to keep us in the home. This is how they see women. Not as an equal citizen."

In the early days of the Libyan revolution, when victory was far from assured, Salwa Bugaighis was to be found sitting with her gun in her lap in Benghazi as Muammar Gaddafi's forces besieged the city. She was an original member of the rebels' national transitional council but quit after a few months because women were virtually excluded from the new government.

Bugaighis, a human rights lawyer, has campaigned to get as many women as possible on the ballot for next month's elections to a national conference that will appoint a government to draw up a new constitution.

"There are many women candidates. We know they will not win but we want to send a message that we are here; even if we lose this time, there will be the next time," she said.

"It's culture and psychological too. For decades, men and women both didn't see any women in power so automatically they thought this is the role of the man. During the Gaddafi years, there were 132 ministers. Just three of them were women. Those three are not the kind of women people like." Those ministers included Huda Ben Amer, who rose to become one of the former Libyan dictator's most trusted lieutenants after a stomach-churning incident in which she was an enthusiastic participant in a public hanging in Benghazi in 1984.

Bugaighis is looking beyond the immediate challenges of the armed factions that still hold sway in parts of Libya to the writing of a new constitution to guarantee equality. But she says practice will matter more than declarations.

"I want to be able to feel it. I'm not worried about the law and the constitution, I'm worried about the awareness of the people. In Egypt and Syria and Tunisia there was a constitution but did they respect that constitution? Did they practice that constitution? If the government respects the constitution, the ordinary people will respect the constitution," she said.

There is common agreement that the revolution has changed the game. But, says Ibrahim: "When it comes to women, it has failed. The biggest powers in the country at the moment are the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and both are women-free by default.

"But the revolution has also changed the situation. You can see it in the young women. We are more persistent in claiming our rights. More women are talking about sexual harassment than before. We are open about it and we are clear about our demands. The social change that is taking place – it's gradual but it's still there.

"The hope I'm still holding on to is that during the 18 days we were on the frontlines as women, and women lost their lives, they were injured, and they were fighting shoulder to shoulder next to men. No one can take this from us because we were there." Karman agrees. "The revolution is still continuing. Now women are taking the role of being the saviour and not the victim waiting for a solution to rescue her from those who took her rights," she said. "We will not stand for the fact that women would be involved in fighting for the revolution but post-revolution they will disappear. We've passed that time when women can be used that way."

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 7 - 13 June 2012 Issue No. 1101

Her-story, not his

The Words of Women project has been documenting the contributions made by Egypt's women to last year's 25 January Revolution, writes Omneya Youssry

Sabah; Nazli; Nada

Many people thought that Egyptian women would see their rights reinforced after last year's 25 January Revolution, only to be faced with an unrepresentative female minority in parliament, a crackdown on last year's women's march and the undermining of women's roles on the political scene.

However, even if women's present contributions are in danger of being downgraded, their historical contributions will not be forgotten, thanks to the Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution documentary project, which is helping women to write their history by highlighting women's stories from the 25 January Revolution.

According to Nazli Hussein, the project's producer, "we are a group of independent filmmakers and activists that wants to shed light on the participation and the role of women in the Egyptian revolution, in order to contribute to the historical memory of the revolution." The project is designed to be a tool for women's empowerment everywhere and a source for researchers, students and everyone interested in the revolution.

"The participation of women in the Egyptian revolution didn't come as a surprise to us, and we do not see it as extraordinary phenomenon," Hussein explained. It is for this reason that it is so important to record that participation for present and future generations to learn from and be inspired by, she said.

Women make up half of society, but their history and participation is still sometimes played down, keeping them in the shadows while highlighting the participation of men and attributing them the leading roles. "This is why we think it is about time we documented and shared 'her-story' and not 'his-story'," Hussein explained.

For her, this is even more important now that some are complaining that women are disappearing from the post-revolutionary political scene, notably in the formation of political parties.

The project, taking the form of documentary filmmaking, aims to cover a variety of women from all parts of Egyptian society and from the country's various regions. It took the best part of a year to contact and select the women to be interviewed for the documentaries, though it was not hard for the filmmakers to find women ready to speak on camera about the revolution or their experience in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"The only hard part came when we were doing research outside Cairo. We also wanted to interview ordinary women, not women who were already involved in politics, so we had to work to find them first," Hussein said.

"The project began in March this year, and we will continue to research as we work with the film crew on making the documentaries. Our objective is to produce a minimum of two pieces a week and then to make these available on the project website as soon as they are done."

So far the videos are only available in Arabic, though subtitled in English and Spanish, but the project crew is working on making them available in other languages too.

According to Hussein, each short video is intended as a mini-profile of the woman being interviewed, building up into a series of 12-minute profiles. They feature women from very different social backgrounds, as well as of different skin colours and ages. "What unites them is their love of freedom and for all Egyptians," Hussein said.

The videos typically show their subjects' life and work before the revolution, their participation in it, and how their lives have changed today. The stories told are personal ones, but they also reflect women's participation in the revolution as a whole, helping to break down societal stereotypes of protective Egyptian mothers, passive women, and the apolitical nature of female concerns.

Funding for what is still a very low-budget project is spent on research, filming, travel to different areas of Egypt, post-production, subtitling and web administration and maintenance. The planned initial period was of three months duration, with a minimum of two short films produced and published per week.

"For this reason, we were only able to offer modest financial compensation to the team working on the project," explained Hussein. The equipment that was bought will be used for later stages of the project, with a second phase planned that will cover rural areas and provincial towns and cities, not just Cairo.

It is intended that this second phase will last three further months. Only logistical funding will be needed, since equipment costs will have been covered in phase one. Up to now eight film episodes have been published, seven dealing with women from Cairo, and one, Umm Ahmed, from Alexandria.

"In a possible phase three, we even hope to cover some or all of the other Arab countries that have also had revolutions, such as Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen," Hussein added.

The project has been selected for funding by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), though the grant only covers a portion of total costs, so there is still a need for further funds to be raised elsewhere. The project has a Facebook page, Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution, and this keeps audiences informed of progress on filming and other matters.

A blog will also be appearing on the Internet soon. "It is very clear to us that we need to keep this project independently funded, mainly so that we can offer the results to all under a non-commercial creative commons licence, so that everyone can share and use them. Our two weekly episodes are available on Youtube and our Facebook page," Hussein said.

Nada Zatouna, a 23-year-old Nubian filmmaker, is one of the women featured in the project. After being arrested, insulted and threatened by the police during the revolution, she realised that she had nothing more to fear, she said, and the fact that she had personally witnessed and suffered violence led her to further activism.

"I was lucky enough to have the guts to say it out loud. We, I mean women, were attacked by Egyptian policemen. That is what differentiates my story from that of hundreds of other women."

"The organisation that was supposed to protect us in fact went out of its way to intimidate us," Zatouna said. She was arrested by the police during the demonstrations in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, and she is even now waiting to appear in court later this month, charged with causing affray.

"Police reports were invented via wireless devices," Zatouna claims. "Nothing was done according to normal legal procedures." Although Zatouna does not yet know what will be the outcome of the present case, she says she will continue to demonstrate in order to realise the revolution's goals.

Another participant in the project is 52-year-old Sabah Ibrahim, or Umm Ali, as she prefers to be called. Umm Ali comes from a lower-income group, and she first demonstrated, she remembers, when former president Anwar El-Sadat cut the subsidy on bread in 1977. In 2005, she took part in a sit-in organised by the Kifaya Movement, and since then she has been longing to sing "down with Mubarak" himself.

"Tahrir during the revolution was not Egypt. It was a part of paradise," Umm Ali comments, who had recently been kicked out of her house after spending 17 years living in it. "That was not the only reason why I wanted to demonstrate against the old faker Mubarak and his allies, but one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Tahrir as soon as the demonstrations started was in order to protest against the misleading governmental media, the only source of information for me and my family."

"We wanted to go in order to find out the truth for ourselves. I was one of the first women to spend days and nights in Tahrir for the whole of the 18 days of the revolution, and I was among the first to call for an end to military rule after the events at Maspero," she says proudly.

Umm Ali says that as a woman, she believes that her role then was at Tahrir and not at home looking after her house and family. "Neither my daughter nor I feared anything throughout the 18 days of the sit-in, and we feel that our role is still not yet finished," she said.

Hussein comments that the project's weekly films from 13 May have been changed to videos of solidarity with the people detained in the Abbasiya disturbances. "Because of the massive crackdown that took place on 4 May against the march to the Ministry of Defence in Abbasiya, we felt it was time to put things on hold, to raise our voices in solidarity with the detainees and to join thousands in protest against the ruling military junta," she said.

Hundreds of Egyptians, one girl as young as 14 years old, have been detained, she claimed, and abuse and torture have been used. "The military junta has not hesitated to use violence against the detainees, both men and women," she continued.

Summarising the intention behind the project, Hussein says that the idea is to act to make Egypt a better place to live in, the slogan being "Her-Story to Remember History." Women were there during the revolution, Hussein reminds us, as they always will be.