In the wave of uprisings that have ignited across the Middle East in 2011, women have stood shoulder to shoulder with men at the forefront of protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Algeria, Syria, Morocco, Oman, and Bahrain. The presence, leadership, and participation of women has been extensive.
Essential to public demonstrations as activists, organizers, medics, mothers, motivators, decision-makers, media figures, and whistle-blowers, women all over the region have been indivisible from the ranks of protesters calling resolutely for dignity, democracy, and change.
While knocking down paternalistic regimes, they also are shattering the stereotypical image of the subjugated Arab woman.
Women across the region are demanding that their governments respect universal human rights, create more economic opportunities for all, enact political freedom, and end corruption and tyranny. Women are calling for the rule of law and dignity, seeking justice, safety, and equality of all citizens.
The pivotal role of women in the mass movements for reform has been vividly demonstrated in the revolution in Egypt, including the Million Woman March in Cairo on March 8, 2011. The need for women’s political engagement has become equally clear.
While the major media was slow to include and acknowledge images and voices of women in proportion their significant presence on the frontlines of the revolution’s protests, Egyptian female social media users, news anchors, activists, and mothers quickly made their full presence known and voices heard within the country and beyond.
Women’s role in the quickly unfolding events became at once both urgent and essential to the success of the people’s movement against the Mubarak regime. In large part, this previously unseen dichotomy of women protesting, marching, mobilizing, praying, reporting, interviewing, sleeping, healing, dancing, and singing alongside men in Tahrir Square became its own emblem of the revolution’s social transformation, however, local and international news interviews and images largely favored male participants, unless explicitly exploring the theme of women’s participation.
Over 18 days of protest in Egypt, women were found in every aspect of leadership and engagement. It is impossible to include all of the incredible women who were at the heart of the revolution all the way to its edges, but these are some of the icons of change that touched us:
• Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which has been protesting the regime since 2009, posted a 4 minute video on Facebook and YouTube calling men and women of Egypt to join her in Tahrir Square on January 25. When the Supreme Military Council met with leaders of the Khalid Said and April 6 Movements in the first days after Mubarak’s resignation, Asmaa Mahfouz was the one woman who was there.
• Young feminist activists such as Mona Seif (@monasosh) bravely kept up a stream of reports on blogs, Twitter, and to news media to share eyewitness accounts from the ground, including accounts of torture and violence. Read a vivid Q&A with her.
• Doctors and nurses such as Dina Omar, a 30-year-old Egyptian cardiologist, worked at makeshift medical stations throughout Tahrir Square in adverse conditions, which included dodging Molotov cocktails, buses full of thugs or criminals trying to drive into them, and sustained periods of violence, especially in the second week of protest. Dina Omar’s account in The Guardian
• Azza Kamel, an activist, writer, and Karama partner, camped out for 18 days and nights in Tahrir Square under a tarpaulin, leaving only to collect food and blankets for a few hours each day for her follow protesters. Read more about Azza Kamel and the women who joined her.
• Afaf Marei and her organization, The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, led a coalition to issue a Roadmap to the Rule of Law outlining next steps which must be taken to ensure existing grievances and reform of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council are addressed, and the constitution is rewritten to protect freedoms and launch democratic processes. For more information on Afaf Marei’s organization, click here.
• Gamila Ismail, opposition candidate in the 2010 parliamentary elections, kept up an uninterrupted spotlight on the violence and political repression incited by the regime’s Minister of the Interior, denouncing Habib el-Adly in Tahrir Square each day
• Sally Zahran, a 23-year-old translator who was hit in the head by a bat, Mina Naggy, who was shot 30 times by security forces, Miriam Nazier, a 16-year-old who was killed by sniper shot, and other Egyptian martyrs lost their lives in protests against the Mubarak regime. Many of these men and women are profiled and memorialized on http://1000Memories.com/egypt.
• El Nadim Center has steadily fought against torture and supported women and their families both legally and psychologically in dealing with situations of violence. The El-Nadim Center came under threat during the days of protests, however, all staff remain unharmed.
• Mothers and sisters of several martyrs of the protests refused to receive condolences or hold funeral ceremonies until the Mubarak regime stepped down, and Khaled Said’s mother came from Alexandria to join the protesters in Tahrir.
In the Media
Even beyond those on the ground, women have demonstrated a pivotal role as members of the media in both reporting accurate information and standing up to government pressure to bend the truth:
• Former Egyptian news anchor for Nile TV, Shahira Amin, resigned after reaching her limit on government censorship of media reports to Egyptian citizens. After 22 years of working for the state-run network, Ms. Amin cited pressure from the Interior Ministry as the final provocation for her resignation, reporting that she received press releases from the government including one that instructed Nile TV to place blame for the protests on the Muslim Brotherhood when she knew that it was Egyptian activists who had incited the movement for political change.
• Al Jazeera reporters Sherine Tadros and Rawya Rageh on the ground in Cairo and Alexandria day in and day out risked their safety to provide international audiences with an accurate report of one of the most pivotal moments in history.
• Mona El Shazly, late-night television host on Egypt’s Dream TV, helped search for Wael Ghonim when he went missing and aired the pivotal interview of him after he was released from detention. This interview went on to reinvigorate activists across the globe and on the ground in the last few days of the protests.
• Nawal Saadawi, an 80-year-old feminist and Egyptian author who took on the role of media during these 18 days, published several pieces and circulated a video about people being beaten for “50 pounds and a chicken.”
• @alya1989262, a young Egyptian woman who had been using Twitter for just a year, played a crucial role in the revolution by creating the #jan25 hashtag, which crystallized much of the online conversation during the protests.
This image of women’s courage and leadership has been echoed throughout the region, by women’s determination in protests, chanting and demanding reform right alongside men on the streets, and also as organizers, motivators, and activists. In Tunisia, where the current regime was toppled by public protests in mid-January, mothers courageously spoke up at news conference clad in all black and pointing direct blame on former leader Ben Ali for the death of their children. Human rights leader and blogger Lina Ben Mehenni was among the first to spread the word about the Tunisian protests in early December through her tweets and blogs, despite threats from the police. And Leila Bouazizi spoke stirringly of her brother Mohammed’s memory after his death from self-immolation that spurred the protests in Sidi Bouzid: “My brother is alive in all of us. He offered us so much, he opened many doors for us because we can smell democracy and freedom now,” she told the BBC Arabic service in an interview.
In Algeria, a women’s protest called for sweeping political reform, even in the face of violent police who attempted to silence their peaceful singing and chanting. Over 350 were arrested and many, including the prominent, 90-year-old lawyer Ali Yahia Abdennour, who is the honorary president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), were roughed up or injured.
Women in Bahrain joined men in camping in Pearl Square, and also joined them in sustaining marked injury from rubber bullets and tear gas when riot police attacked their tents. Read one Bahraini’s woman’s account of how participating in the protests has been a personal revolution for her and many others, and they will never be the same after this.
On February 25, 2011, Karama’s partner the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq was one of the organizers of the demonstrations in Baghdad and Samarra, leading chants calling for reform, right to work, and equality. Opposition media in Iraq broadcast OWFI’s call for government reform on the news. On OWFI’s blog, the group noted: “In the western city of Samarra, women and men were leading the demonstrators, and raising banners demanding support for the widows who are a majority among the women of Samarra. It was a precedent for a tribal community protest to be led by women.”
Despite the detention of hundreds and dozens of deaths by security forces, a new round of protests continued in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on March 5 and in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Local newspapers in Suleimanya recorded the images of women demonstrating side by side with men in the protests in Iraqi Kurdistan, followed by an energetic rally on International Women’s Day.
Since Iraq’s government came back to work after nine months of delay, one concern for women has been their lack of political power despite a quota that delivered them 25% of the seats in parliament. When no women had the chance to take part in the negotiations to break Iraq’s government stalemate last year, the number of female ministers dropped from four in the past administration to just one in the new Cabinet that was formed in December 2010. The Cabinet reflects the compromises and agreements made among political parties in the negotiations in which women were absent.
Adding to this concern, on March 7, the Prime Minister closed the Baghdad offices of several opposition parties, a move criticized by Iraqi human rights activists including Hanaa Edwar, with the women’s organization Al-Amal Association, a partner of Karama: “This is part of the violations of public freedoms and human rights. They feel that these demonstrators are terrorists. Political parties not loyal to their policies are being attacked. And for what?”
Finally, in Yemen, Tawakkol Karman is an inspiration to women across the globe. Karman has become the most vocal and well-known activist urging fellow Yemenis to work for the end of President Saleh’s 30 year control of the country. In late January, she was seized in the middle of the night by plain-clothed police officers on the charges of organizing an unlicensed demonstration, after receiving a death threat from Saleh himself, delivered through her brother, an acquaintance of the president. Though she is now free, this incident set off a wave of protests that nearly toppled President Saleh’s power. Many have called Karman a hero, stating that she’s had the courage to do what no man in the country can.
Securing Safety and Political Participation
The world continues to watch as women play pivotal roles in the growing revolutions. However, there is much speculation as to what women’s roles will be once the protests die down and governments and societies begin the process of rebuilding and reform. In Egypt, where three weeks of protest seemed to demonstrate disappearing tension between members of both genders, reports of sexual assault and harassment, including CBS reporter Lara Logan, surfaced a few days after Mubarak’s resignation, and again on International Women’s Day during a demonstration by women in Tahrir Square on March 8. While this is not a new incident for Egypt, where the majority of women report being harassed or assaulted at some point in their lives, it is a reminder that despite the solidarity between genders highlighted during Egypt’s time of crisis and uprising, women have begun to see familiar forms of discrimination revive. Pro-regime supporters also use sexual harassment and assault to deter women from political participation and protest. Noha Radwan describes this vividly in her account of an attack by thugs in Tahrir, on Jadaliyya:
Since the revolution, women’s safety and political participation have continued to be overlooked; the committee charged by Egypt’s Supreme Military Council with setting up an interim constitution to govern the full parliamentary and presidential elections in June and August is composed only of men.
In turn, the newly proposed articles for the interim constitution appear to reserve the presidency for men only: “Egypt’s president is born to two Egyptian parents and cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman. Neither he nor his parents shall have another nationality except the Egyptian one. He shall practice his own civil and political rights” (Article 75). How this translates into future appointments and to identification of viable candidates for the anticipated 2011 elections remains to be seen. With the suspension of the constitution, the recent quota of 60 seats for women in parliament is gone before it had much chance for the women to show themselves in action.
Jordan and Tunisia
Certain gestures appear to limit recent advancement of women’s rights. In Jordan, following appointment of a new cabinet as a result of protests in January 2011, the name of the Ministry for Social Development and Women’s Affairs was changed to the Ministry of Social Development. However, the appointment of two women in the new Cabinet includes the former Senator Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, a strong proponent of women’s rights. Meanwhile, in Tunisia, women, who feel that they’ve long enjoyed more rights than in neighboring countries, fear the return of the once-banned Islamist party and subsequent loss of core freedoms. The current political landscape is also worrisome, as only two out of the 23 ministers named for the interim government are women, and not a single one of 24 newly named governors is female.
Women and Men United for a Free and Democratic Egypt
As democratic processes are put in place in countries where regimes have been forced to resign or heavily reform, the question remains, what will women’s role in new decision-making structures be? The uprisings throughout the region are not about women’s rights specifically, but about political and human rights for all. It is a fight that regards all citizens, but also one that has already translated into greater momentum for action on women’s advancement, freedom, and safety. Discussion of a free and democratic process that includes the people’s vision for the future must include a platform for women on the issues which most affect them.
So much potential has been created by recent challenges to decades-long restrictive rule through the region. It is not yet clear what new opportunities have been created, where old women’s rights frameworks plug into the new landscape, or how women will play a greater role.
What is absolutely certain, however, is that this is a unique moment in history and momentum shift toward women’s leadership and participation and how we address this new environment will ultimately decide how the next group of leaders will address and prioritize the needs of women.