The women behind the Arab Spring


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2In Tunisia, Lina Ben Mhenni, an activist, travelled around the country documenting protests on her blog, "A Tunisian Girl." Besides photographing the dead and wounded, she included pictures of herself with male protesters at sit-ins in the Kasbah in Tunis.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/10/2011 (4243 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

2In Tunisia, Lina Ben Mhenni, an activist, travelled around the country documenting protests on her blog, “A Tunisian Girl.” Besides photographing the dead and wounded, she included pictures of herself with male protesters at sit-ins in the Kasbah in Tunis.

Tawakkul Karman, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month, has been a leading figure in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Yemen, camping out for months in front of Sanaa University as part of the call for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

Defying their stereotype as victims of oppressive patriarchies, Arab women have made their presence a defining feature of the Arab spring.

CP Hani Mohammed / The Associated Press archives In this Jan. 26, 2011 file photo, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, who was jailed for leading protests at the weekend, holds a rose during an anti-government protest in Sanaa, Yemen.

The position of women in the Arab world has long been difficult. In 2002, the first Arab Human Development Report cited the lack of women’s rights as one of three factors, along with lack of political freedoms and poor education, that most hampered the region’s progress. Amid the loud calls for democracy in the early days of the uprisings, little was said specifically about women’s rights. But now that constitutions are being rewritten, many women in Egypt and Tunisia, whose revolutions are the most advanced, hope to push their own liberation.

In Egypt, the sight of women protesting is hardly new. In 1919, veiled women in Cairo marched against British rule, calling for independence. In 1957, Egypt became the first country in the Arab world to elect a woman to parliament, having allowed votes for women only the year before. During the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, girls were encouraged to go to school, and women were exhorted to join the workforce, as part of the push for general economic development. In the 1970s under Anwar Sadat, and with encouragement from his wife, Jehan, women made further gains. But since then, progress has been stalled by the growing power of conservative religious groups.

Today, Egypt’s women may work outside the home, go to school and universities, and are free to vote and run in all elections. But women’s literacy stands at just 58 per cent, and only 23 per cent of workers are women. The country’s laws are a mixed bag. The constitution outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sex, but women are entitled to inherit only half as much as men. Husbands may divorce their wives in moments in front of a civil servant, but women endure lengthy court proceedings to do the same. A woman who remarries loses the right to custody of her children.

The condition of Tunisia’s women, by contrast, is unmatched in the Arab world. That is mostly thanks to Habib Bourguiba, the founding father of the modern Tunisian state, who outlawed polygamy, granted women equal divorce rights and legalized abortion. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s toppled dictator, continued Bourguiba’s work, expanding parental, divorce and custody rights for women and promoting their education and employment. In 1960, nearly half of women were married by the time they had turned 20. By 2004, only three per cent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were married, divorced or widowed. The literacy rate for women in Tunisia is now over 70 per cent, though only 27 per cent of the labour force is female. Women make up nearly two-thirds of university students, compared with two-fifths in Egypt.

For Ben Ali, and to a lesser extent Mubarak, defending women’s rights was a useful sop to the West. It provided an excuse for cracking down on their Islamist opponents. Their wives — Suzanne Mubarak in particular — promoted women’s causes. Suzanne Mubarak pushed through laws banning female genital mutilation and allowing women to become judges. These laws still stand, but they are tainted by their association with the former regime. This is unfortunate, says Hoda Badran, head of the Alliance for Arab Women.

“They weren’t Suzanne Mubarak’s laws. She gave a little push towards the end, but we did the work.” Many in Egypt are already suspicious of the language of women’s rights, regarded by some as a Western import. In the effort to ditch everything connected to the Mubarak era, activists are worried women’s rights will suffer.

Since January’s heady days, the voices in Egypt saying women should leave the revolution to men have grown more insistent. At a demonstration on International Women’s Day in March, jeering men told those marching to go home and feed their babies. The police, too, as they broke up the march, told the women this was no time for such rallies. More tellingly, the number of women in the cabinet has fallen from four to one. No woman is a member of the committee drafting the new constitution, though many are qualified to be. Essam Sharaf, Egypt’s prime minister, invited a group of kwomen to meet him and discuss their worries, but little has come of it.

Tribune Media MCT Shashank Bengali / McClatchy News Service archives Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, 27, photographed at a caf�� in March, and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman (far left), protesting in Sanaa in January, have been among the women taking active part in Arab Spring protests. Some women fear their interests will not be considered as conservative Muslims have gained power following the overthrow of Arab governments this year.

More disturbing is the attitude of Egypt’s military rulers. On March 9, fed up with the slow pace of reform, protesters returned to Tahrir Square to restate their calls for freedom, justice and equality. The army broke up the demonstration and arrested scores of demonstrators, including at least 18 women. While held, they were beaten, threatened with charges of prostitution and forced to submit to “virginity checks.” At first, the army denied the checks had taken place. In May, however, a senior general admitted it had been done so the women would not later claim they had been raped by soldiers.

“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” he explained. “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square.”

Tunisian women have suffered no such abuses. Already far in advance of Egypt, their legal position has not changed since the revolution. But they fear it may. For Tunisian women, it is a question of preserving rights, rather than winning new ones, says Mouna Dridi, a specialist in constitutional law at the University of Tunis. They look anxiously at what has happened in Iraq, where the overthrow of a tyrant does not seem to have helped women.

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