“Raise your head, Samira!” And Other “Women Making Democracy”

I am calling it bold, inspiring and a timely summit of brilliant women-minds, but a long list of impressed qualifiers would apply to “Women Making Democracy” at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Friday, March 30.

Intent on writing a thoughtful and comprehensive review of this conference, I had hoped to watch and rewind the announced video recordings, but it now appears they will not be available in the short-term. In the meantime, I will reflect on questions raised and lessons learned, by using the tweets of #RadCon participants—including my own—as notes. Given the scope of this blog at present, I will turn a spotlight on panelists who addressed realities and developments in Egypt and Tunisia.

Clearly, some speakers were more optimistic than others about the future of democracy and the role of women—beyond elections and the writing of these countries’ new constitutions. Moreover, different interpretations of Islam informed their visions.

Tunisian scholar, Dalenda Larguèche, Professor of History and Women Studies at the Université de la Manouba, declared that gender parity is already an irreversible gain of the Tunisian Revolution. During a discussion on the political representation of women and the good and bad of quotas, Rima Khalaf—undersecretary General and Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia—said that “quotas are a temporary measure to address a deficiency in the system,” but to be relevant they must be competitive.

How relevant and competitive are they? According to QuotaProject, in Egypt, women hold two percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. In Tunisia, women hold 26 percent of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly. While Dr. Larguèche has reason to be more optimistic about Tunisia, quotas and matters of representation are not reduced to gender.  Egyptian panelist, Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat,

Heba Raouf Ezzat

an Assistant Professor with the Department of Political Science at Cairo University, pointed out that she’s yet to see one young woman represented in these quotas.

In the face of elections results in both countries, with overwhelming majorities achieved by Islamist parties, the issue of religion was in order. On the topic of Sharia law, Dr. Heba Raouf pointed out that conservatism is much more dominant in Egyptian society than Sharia law itself. Earlier in the conference, Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin also defended that Egyptians are not ultra-religious but moderate by nature—and, she added, the Muslim Brotherhood swept the elections based on their superior organization.

Egypt-born Dalia Mogahed—Executive Director and Senior Analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think­—shared seemingly corroborating data on Tunisia: a Gallup poll found that 10 percent of Tunisians want no legislative role for Sharia, while the majority wants Sharia to play some role in informing the country’s laws. According to Mohaged, while there are very different views of the role of religion in society, there is greater agreement about the role of women. To Mohaged, it is important that women’s rights not be seen as excluded by religion, and she defended that progress in men’s views of women are not tied to the secularization of society but around human development. One speaker cited Bangladesh as an example of a predominantly Islamist country with a strong women’s movement. Rima Khalaf distinguished “ruling by Sharia” from “drafting laws by Sharia,” and emphasized the danger of the former: it is no law at all as it relies on interpretation, she argued.

Shahira Amin, Egyptian journalist.

Journalist Shahira Amin, one of the hopefuls, said she’s not worried about the Islamists. Moreover, she’s optimistic for the women of Egypt. Consider this: 10 million Egyptian women have graduate degrees (population is 81 million)! But there’s optimism for the men as well. Remember Samira Ibrahim, one of the victims of the so-called “virginity tests” who braved the military doctor in court? Amin was there when hundreds protested the acquittal of the defendant. She reported that men and women alike shouted, “Samira, hold your head high!” I must say, long after memories of this conference have faded, I will remember this chant!

Men and women protested outside the High Court of Justice. Photographed by Virginie Nguyen. Published by Egypt Independent.

Reflecting on the meaning of the Arab Spring movements, Amin said they are much more than a unique, unforeseen phenomenon. They represent—and have inspired—a broader category of collective global commitment to “having a voice.” Blogger and Rhode Island University PhD candidate and professor, Jenn Brandt—a remote attendee of the conference– tweeted an even greater commitment:

And how’s this for the role of women?

Closing words by a conference rapporteur:

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MEN MAKING DEMOCRACY:

There were two equally brilliant men on the conference dais: Architect Dr. Hashim Sarkis, Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism in Muslim Societies, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. Representing the link between space/architecture and democratization movements, Dr. Sarkis moderated a panel on “Public Places, Alternative Spaces.” 

Presenters on the fluidity of, and between, the political and the public spheres, included Dr. Philip N. Howard, a communications professor with Washington University. Dr. Howard elaborated on the role of digital space–how it exposes the status of women and gender relations worldwide, and how it is changing family dynamics. “Women have aggressively invaded the new public space of digital media,” Dr. Howard said.

“Women Making Democracy”: Tahrir Comes to Harvard Square

Cambridge, MA, Friday, March 30, 2012– Activists, journalists, and a variety of academics are gathered today at The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University to examine and discuss the role of women in the uprisings and democratization efforts that have dominated the Arab world for over a year. “Women Making Democracy” will examine and analyze women’s experiences of the Arab revolutions—and compare them to those of women in similar moments in history, from Eastern Europe to South Africa and Latin American.

Live Streaming begins at 8:45 a.m. You can follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #RadCon.

On Monday, Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies hosted a Live Demonstration of Calligraffiti with Tunisian Street Artist eL Seed, integrating Arabic calligraphic traditions and themes of political change.

Throughout the week, and still on exhibit through 5:00 p.m. today is Roaming Revolution: Unfolding the Narratives of a Square, depicting the transformation of Tahrir Square into a civic space for political expression, resistance and organization, and artistic endeavors. The iconic symbol of the revolution is represented by a model of Tahrir. Read more here, and enjoy these images from the exhibit’s walls: