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
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
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
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."