x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Women of the Arab Spring give voice to their hopes and aspirations

Five women whose courage and candour in the face of threat have inspired people around the globe.

"We don't know anything about freedom and democracy," Salwa Bugaighis said. "It's a big challenge."

In a way, the surprise didn't matter. Westerners may have been astonished at the sight of women protesting alongside men during the Arab Spring uprisings, taking part equally in the battles, absorbing the blows and forcing the issue. But the women themselves had a different view.

"It wasn't a surprise for women to see themselves out there," says Rania Al Malky, editor-in-chief at Daily News Egypt. "It was only natural, since women have been a part of all major struggles in Egypt, and so not new for them to be there in a key moment in Egyptian history."

Women at the forefront of the struggles that started in Tunisia and fast carried over into Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria have spoken of the protests as reawakening a sense of equality that had long been buried under layers of corruption, repression and social conservatism.

The problem now is of a retreat to the past, and already we're seeing a claw-back. Women were underrepresented in the recently held Egyptian elections, while that same nation has witnessed brutal repression and humiliation of some women at the hands of security forces, guided by a transitional military council that to some observers seems intent on crushing the aims and spirit of the revolution.

Dr Laleh Khalili, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, says that revolutions are often "fought over the terrain of women's bodies" because that's what ends up being a defining issue. "It tends to be the issue that is polarising in all contexts. It forces the different sides to clarify a position and is a distraction from other points of contention, because it's so emotive."

But Khalili also points out that, once women have tasted the power and the equality of a revolutionary time, there is no going back to old roles - it's a transformative experience. That's something reiterated by the activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman - dubbed the "Mother of Yemen's Revolution" - who says: "Women know and have practised something different now, so they will never go back. Past revolutions around the world have ignored women, but no - not this time."

Here we speak to five women who played a role in the revolutions across the Arab world about what inspires them, what they hope for, and what keeps them going.

 

Tawakkul Karman, 32, Yemeni activist, 'Mother of the Revolution',

First Arab woman to win Nobel Peace Prize, 2011

The founder of Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, Tawakkul Karman, a mother of three, has been campaigning for human rights and freedom of expression for many years. She was on the front lines of the protests in Yemen that amplified into an uprising in 2011, and which still continue.

"When the situation in Yemen became worse and worse I decided I can't just complain, I have to be a part of the solution," she says. "It's the crisis, nothing else, that gave us the ability to do it and to think how to do it. I wasn't alone. I was with youth, with women, with many others who have the same dream - yes, I was in the first lines but I was not alone."

Karman was detained several times by the forces of the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and her imprisonment in January last year drew thousands onto the streets in protest.

"I believe that if a woman decides to do something, she can do it if she can also convince the people around her - her family, or society," she says. "She must not see any obstacles around her, but has to just follow her goals and objectives. I didn't look at all the obstacles around me and I'm lucky to have a good, supportive family and a good husband. People are surprised sometimes when they see me, but they support me much more than I expected."

Karman is a strong advocate for women's rights - placing the issue at the heart of the revolutionary charter for change.

"In Yemen people respect women from deep inside," she says. "They remember former queens and when they see me they say: 'Oh this is our third queen!' When Yemeni people see a woman who is strong, sure of herself and who gives something to society, they respect her.

"Women are the revolution, leading demonstrations, in every field, in health, in security. Women are also targeted by the authorities because they are leaders.

"I have a role," Karman says, "not just in Yemen or in other Arab countries but in international society, to stop violence, spread a culture of peace and to eliminate discriminatory practices around the world. But I will start in Yemen. I will continue my role with women, with youth - teach all people to be good citizens, so the future will be good for everyone in Yemen, for women and men.

"We will refuse any traditional roles for women. She must feature in our new lives as a leader, in all fields and I am sure she will do it - now she knows and has practised something different, she will never go back. Past revolutions around the world have ignored women but no, not this time - we will not make the same mistakes."

 

Rachel Shabi

 

Esraa Abdel Fattah, 33 Egyptian, April 6 Movement

Esraa Abdel Fattah was arrested and detained for 18 days in Egypt, an ordeal she now describes as transformative.

At the beginning of the Egyptian uprising in January 2011, Fattah was instrumental in mobilising support and was constantly in Tahrir Square, using social media to spread information about the revolution to the outside world.

"I have learnt that the power of any country lies in its people," she says. "I have experienced how you can get very normal people to seek change, to believe in their power as the people of this country."

Fattah is one of the founders of the April 6 Movement, the Facebook group set up to support workers at the industrial town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, who were planning strike action on that date in 2008. The group sprawled into a wider political movement.

"Early in 2008, when workers of El Mahalla El-Kubra called for strikes in response to low wages and rising food costs, I started to use new media in my activism, as a means for political mobilisation, campaigning and advocacy," Fattah says. "I picked up, promoted and expanded the strike call. I created the April 6 Strike Group on Facebook with my colleague Ahmed Maher. I posted a call for a general strike in support of the textile workers of Mahalla-al-Kobra. More than 77,000 people joined my Facebook page in less than 10 days.

"Eventually, this successful use of Facebook to mobilise people led to my arrest. They accused me of disturbing the peace, inciting to strike and disrupting traffic. Those 18 days in prison changed my life completely. I was no longer just a girl from a small town north of Cairo. I was no longer Esraa the teacher, the girl with a few simple dreams for her future, but without any real hope that they would ever materialise.

"In those 18 days I found the real me, and I realised who I wanted to be. My life was becoming connected to a larger popular movement in Egypt and I felt that I had the power to lead them again and again on the road to democracy and freedom. I was no longer afraid, I felt my own courage. I remember I woke up in my cell one morning and realised: 'From today there is no more fear.' I wanted freedom for myself, but most of all, I was inspired to fight for an Egypt where every Egyptian could feel justice and freedom forever.

"I stayed at Tahrir Square during the revolution as an activist and eyewitness," Fattah says. "I helped media coverage and tried to cover everything happening by phone and using my Facebook and Twitter accounts.

"During the protests at Tahrir Square, women were organising, demonstrating, and calling for [the president Hosni] Mubarak's ousting. Many revealed their deep appreciation and respect for women as partners. But after toppling the regime, women lost lots of political and social gains. Only one woman had been selected to the interim cabinet, the quota of 64 parliamentary seats for women had been abolished and one of the proposed amendments suggested that future presidents could only be male.

"Now the military is targeting women to scare them and their families, stop them from joining protests against the Scaf [military council]. Previously, people implied women who joined protests were of loose morals. In a March sit-in, soldiers subjected detained female protesters to humiliating 'virginity tests' and in October women were brutally beaten and stripped. These actions were an attempt to break women's spirits and dignity so that they don't go out and protest.

"Simply, the best way for women to defend their rights is to participate in social and political life, to be active participants in parties, movements, coalitions and syndicates. Women should try hard without any fear to be leaders. We should not wait for someone to invite us to get involved in public life. We had to stand up for our rights."

 

Rachel Shabi

 

Lina Ben Mhenni, 28, Tunisian blogger, Nobel Peace Prize nominee

Lina Ben Mhenni is a cyber-activist who blogs at A Tunisian Girl and who provided rare ground-level reporting of the start of the Tunisian uprising. Her pictures and accounts of deaths and injuries from Sidi Bouzid and Kesserine, where early demonstrations were horribly crushed, helped to galvanise more Tunisians out onto the streets in protest.

"Women are the protectors of this revolution," Mhenni says. "I am fully confident about Tunisian women - they are educated, the work in all fields, they were very active before, during and after the revolution. For now, everything is OK, but there may be attempts to limit freedoms.

"Women are women, it has nothing to do with their clothes - we have to talk about their full rights, not just the rights of what to wear," she says. "I have concerns about what might happen, but I think that Tunisians are keeping an eye on what is going on and won't allow another dictatorship. I can't judge the [Tunsian Ennahda] Islamist party, despite the fact that some of leaders gave worrying declarations about single women and polygamy - but they are asking for time to act and show what they have to offer, so let's keep an eye on them."

Mhenni's trilingual blog - one of few to be written under a real name while the ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was still in power - was recently collated into a book, Tunisian Girl: A Blogger for an Arab Spring.

"I started writing a few years ago, about human rights and freedom issues, internet censorship and journalists, bloggers, even students being arrested just for their ideas," she says. "My blog used to be censored, my Facebook profile, even my Twitter account. During events in January [2011], my Facebook page was hijacked by the cyber-police.

"When I heard about the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, I began going to protests in Tunis, taking photos and sharing everything on social media. I decided to go to Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine where it all started and the violence of the police was highest. I was writing, giving the latest information to so many foreign TV channels every day using Skype - I did what I had to do."

Mhenni was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, which resulted in such a hectic flurry of interviews and conferences that her father posted to her Facebook page and Twitter account, asking that she be excused from responding to requests.

"I felt it was my duty to show what was going on in Tunisia, so I did it," she says. "I didn't think about it. I was shocked not by the violence because I am used to hearing about violence in Tunisia - I have many friends who have been arrested and tortured by police - but by the fact that Tunisian policemen were killing other Tunisians. That is why we have a sit-in outside the constitutional assembly, to think about the martyrs and that their killers must be punished.

"I think now that we should carry on with our revolution," Mhenni says. "We got rid of the head but the whole system is still here, and still corrupted. I don't think the people elected are trying to change things. Instead of giving importance to the main demands of revolution - employment and social justice - they are talking about things like identity, dividing Tunisian into seculars, atheists and Muslims. I don't think Tunisians died for things like this.

"I hope to see my country build a true democracy. I want to see things really change, not just slogans. That's all I want: real change."

Rachel Shabi

 

 

Razan Ghazzawi, 31, Syrian blogger

 

Towards the end of November last year Razan Ghazzawi posted a Tweet. "If anything happens to me," she wrote, "know that the regime does not fear the prisoners but those who don't forget them."

It was a remarkably prescient posting. On December 4 the US-born Syrian blogger and activist was arrested at the Syrian-Jordanian border. To add a certain piquancy to her detainment, the campaigner, who works for the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in the Arab World, had been travelling to Amman to attend a conference on press freedom when the authorities swooped.

The following day she was charged by Syrian authorities with trying to incite sectarian strife, spreading false information and weakening national sentiment. The charges were a direct response to Ghazzawi's vocal criticisms of the Assad regime; her calls for democracy and freedom of expression could yet land her a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Within hours of her arrest, Ghazzawi, already a woman with a considerable following, had become an international cause célèbre. #FreeRazan saw hundreds of Syrian and human rights advocates from around the globe calling for her release, highlighting the outrage of her arrest and contacting politicians and US embassies for help.

Ghazzawi herself had long harboured concerns that her decision to use her real name on her blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts might not only make her a target but might also compromise the safety of her followers and those with whom she interacted online. Her contingency plan, if arrested, had been to close her online accounts. According to Jillian York, an online freedom activist and friend of Ghazzawi: "Though closing her accounts wouldn't help her, it could protect her friends - that's the kind of person Ghazzawi is."

"She is a consummate activist, never content to let something slide, always thinking, sometimes too much. She is passionate about gender rights, Palestine and, of course, her beautiful Syria."

When it came to it, her friends and family chose to take over her accounts and continue to post updates and call for her freedom. They chose to continue to show that they were the people who wouldn't forget - the people the regime should fear. And there were hundreds upon hundreds of them.

Fourteen days after her arrest Ghazzawi was released on bail. For much of that time she had been held in the now infamous Adra prison on the north-east outskirts of her home, Damascus.

Her first post on her release was an expression of gratitude and a reminder of those still in prison:

"@RedRazan Is home, but Nawal, Rime, Tal, Manal & Hadiyyah remain in jail. Free #Syria detainees &prisoners of conscience! Thank u all 4 ur amazing support."

Ghazzawi still faces the prospect of a trial and the reality of rebutting "confessions" she claims she never made and the lies she says exist in her official file. She cannot, she has written, feel happy about her own release when she knows so many are still imprisoned.

"I got out feeling guilty," she said by way of explanation - not of the crimes with which she was charged but of somehow abandoning her fellow activists.

"plz don't call me a hero for spending 14 days in jail," she recently posted. "I appreciate your support, but the word hero is just wrong :)"

 

Laura Collins

 

Salwa Bugaighis, 45, Libyan pro-democracy protester

Salwa Bugaighis led the first sit-in protests held by a union of lawyers in protest at the arrest of colleagues at the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, last February, which sparked the uprising in the country. That building in the protest stronghold became the revolt's nerve centre as a coalition of demonstrators planned both protests and city survival tactics from it.

Shortly after rebels claimed control of the city - Libya's second largest - Bugaighis, a lawyer and activist, told The National: "There is so much to do. We had no idea we would get rid of [Col Moammar] Qaddafi in just a few days and we were left with nothing, no institutions at all."

By May last year, Bugaighis, who was just one of several prominent female lawyers who spearheaded the Benghazi courthouse protests, was concerned that just five out of 50 members of the rebel-formed National Transitional Council were female. It was jarringly few - after so many competent, multilingual women anchored protest logistics and provided such strong voices of the uprising to the foreign media.

In October, this mother of three went to observe the Tunisian elections, and is thinking about running for office herself. However, of her hopes for Libya now, she told the Washington Post in November that it could take some time for a structured political system to emerge: "We don't know anything about freedom and democracy," she said. "It's a big challenge."

Observing Tunisia's election requirement that party lists feature a 50 per cent female quota, she told the paper that Libya would be unlikely to put something similar into effect for its elections - slated for next month.

"I wish it were not the case," She said, "but you can't change [Libyan people's] mentality immediately. It will take some time."

 

Rachel Shabi