By William Fisher
During the pro-democracy demonstrations that ultimately brought down the dictatorial reigns of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, you couldn’t help noticing that these events were distinctly unisex, still a surprising development in the Middle East.
As a leading Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, put it: “Women and girls are beside boys in the streets. They are -- and we are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy and a new constitution, no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians.”
There are hundreds of similar examples: Women of all ages, who have devoted themselves to securing equal rights and freedom from religious as well as political discrimination.
And in Egypt and Tunisia, women in the demonstrations didn’t just make the tea. They participated in –and sometimes led – virtually every facet of the protests. For that time, at least, they were treated more as equals than is usually the case in male-dominated Arab societies.
One of them is a young Egyptian activist named Esraa Abdel Fattah. Esraa has come to be known as “Facebook Girl” for her role in organizing what became known as the April 6th Facebook Protests, a mobilization of thousands of young people demanding political change.
Esraa is a leading Egyptian democracy and human rights activist. In April 2008 she was imprisoned for her Facebook organizing work, She played a leading role in the mass protests in Tahrir Square and is a prominent spokesperson for the youth protest movement in Egypt. Last month she was among a group of activists who met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo.
During the January 2011 nationwide protests in Egypt, Esraa was active on the Internet, on the ground in Tahrir Square, and in media—including on Al Jazeera TV, regularly updating the news on the opposition. Esraa is a prominent spokesperson for the youth protest movement in Egypt. On March 15, she was among a group of activists who met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo.
Esraa and her colleagues are known for their innovative use of social networking sites as an organizing tool.
And then there were Egyptian activists Mona El Seif and Salma al-Tarzi. These two courageous women, camped out in Tahrir Square during all the days of the protests, were the world’s eyes and ears. Western media reps had a tough time getting into Tahrir Square. So these two intrepids undertook to spend hours on the phone with CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC, and many other international networks. Without them, we would all have known a lot less about the details of what was going on in real time in Tahrir Square.
And these three women are far from alone; there is a virtual army of intrepids in Egypt, in Tunisia and throughout the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. The question is: What roles will these women be able to play after the demonstrations – when the hard work of nation-building really gets underway?
Will they occupy senior posts in new political parties? Will they join the men as political strategists? Or head up the ‘get out the vote’ programs? Will they lead the political parties’ new legal teams? Will they be welcomed as equals by the men who would customarily comprise the parties’ internal think-tanks to develop public policies for a new democracy?
The Public Record posed that question to a number of authorities who have reason to know.
Nadya Khalife, a researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, told us: “ As things stand right now in Egypt, women were unfortunately left out of the Constitutional Committee tasked with amending the Constitution [in Egypt]. Also, there were no women ministers in the newly appointed cabinet. In Tunisia, one female judge sits on the investigative committee to inquire and investigate abuses during the Tunisian revolution. There are also two female ministers (minister for women, and minister for health) in Tunisia’s government. Although there is some presence of women in Tunisia’s transitional government, this does not necessarily reflect the capacity of female politicians in Tunisia.”
Chip Pitts, a longtime human rights advocate and lecturer in law at Stanford and Oxford Universities, told us: “My survey population is a bit skewed, as my female friends and former students there tend to be human rights literate and conscious. But although it varies a bit by country, certainly in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Syria, I don’t see a lot of satisfaction with the traditional role of women so much as a recognition that it could take some time and lots of persistent effort to overcome stereotypes and what is, ultimately, a cultural issue (even more than a religious issue).”
Pitts added, “In the meantime, I hear lots of frustration but continued determination and optimism to work for change. In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there’s more ambivalence, but even there I see repressed desires for political involvement and leadership roles beginning to be asserted in some quarters.”
Professor Nathan A. Brown, International Affairs Director for the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and a senior associate the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has a somewhat different viewpoint. He told The Public Record:
“There certainly were some women involved in the various opposition movements in leadership roles, but gender issues did not figure prominently in the demonstrations or the revolution. I don’t see any sign that changing gender relations is prominent in any way for any of the groups in question. If there is an effect on gender relations, it may be indirect. For instance, deteriorating public security may make public space even more male dominated than it has been -- though I did not see that happening in Egypt when I was there last month, it could be an indirect effect.”
“Should the salafis gain cultural influence, that will probably have some effect as well -- and salafis are certainly more visible now, but I don’t know if they are having much effect on social practice outside their own circles,” he said, adding:
“The groups involved are certainly mobilizing women voters. But in leadership roles? I don’t see any signs that special efforts are being made in that regard, though some women have emerged as leaders.”
Frida Ghitis, an independent journalist, recently wrote in the Miami Herald, “As far as I can see, the new reform structures are not making any provisions to ensure women's rights. In fact, reformists in Egypt were deeply disappointed by the outcome of a constitutional reform referendum a couple of weeks ago, which maintained Sharia as the basis of law. That could prove damaging for women's standing. The Muslim Brotherhood was very happy with the results.”
In Yemen, she added, “where a woman is one of the early leaders of the uprising, the movement is being taken over by the Islamists, who are no friends of women's rights.”
That women were every bit as able to be full partners in the history-making demonstrations that are still continuing in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as in many other countries throughout the region, has been proven. That there is an enormous reservoir of skills among the women of MENA is perhaps less known but no less true.
But integrating these women as equal partners in the post-demonstration phase of democracy-building is going to be tough on Arab men. To achieve that partnership, most Arab males are going to have to take on a really hard job: Changing their attitudes toward women.
Arab men are often heard saying that Sharia law treats women equally (it doesn’t). But if they really believe that, they’re going to have to shed some of the stereotypes that have plagued Arab women for centuries.
Not an easy task. But the incentive is huge. Because this is a time, arguably more than any other in recent history, when embryonic democracies need all the smart, motivated players they can recruit, regardless of gender.
And speaking of motivation, some of the most thoughtful, poetic, heart-wrenching descriptions of what the pro-democracy movement means, have come from women.
One that strikes me as particularly poignant comes from Egyptian-born columnist and speaker Mona Eltahawy. Writing in The Guardian, she said:
“To understand the importance of what's going in Egypt, take the barricades of 1968 (for a good youthful zing), throw them into a mixer with 1989 and blend to produce the potent brew that the popular uprising in Egypt is preparing to offer the entire region. It's the most exciting time of my life. Watching the uprising from New York City exhilarates me and makes me so proud to be an Egyptian. I cry when I see video footage of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, filled with thousands upon thousands chanting: ‘The people want to topple the president.’
“Tahrir means liberation in Arabic, and it gives me goosebumps as I watch my country people demand liberty,” she said.
For Mona, and women throughout the region, democracy is not something the women want the men to achieve for them. It is something they want to achieve with them. Together.
And if the guys in the Middle East are as smart as they’re going to have to be, they’ll figure out how to make that happen.