“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:

__________________________________________________________

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.

Egypt: Where are the women?

“Where are the men?” was the cry of some 3,000 women textile workers striking at a Mahallah factory in December of 2006. With those words they shamed the men into action, growing the demonstration to 10,000. That cry is the title to a chapter in Marwan Bishara’s new book, “The Invisible Arab.” As he and others have noted, women activists played a decisive role in ushering the Egyptian revolution, and, at Tahirir Square, they were seen as equals—“There was no harassment, no ridicule, no intimidation, only appreciation for their courage and determination,” wrote Bishara, the senior political analyst for Al Jazeera English.

But they were also preyed upon and brutalized by security forces. When 18 women were arrested last March, seven of them endured virginity tests, allegedly as a way to ward off claims of sexual harassment while in police custody. The patriarchal rationale being…virgins can’t claim rape, and only rape constitutes harassment and/or assault.

So, where are the women, now?

A week ago, Ahmed Adel, the army doctor accused of performing so-called “virginity tests” on seven female protesters last Spring was acquitted by his own—a military tribunal. As reported by The New York Times, the trial and its verdict defy the rights of women, as well as the power of civilian authority—demonstrating, once again, the impunity and entitlement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (S.C.A.F.). In fact, since the fall of Mubarak, and under SCAF rule, 12,000 civilians have been tried by military courts for exercising freedom of expression and association. While numerous complaints have been filed with military prosecutors against the army’s abuses of power, they have failed to make it to the courtroom—the Adel case being one-of-two rare exceptions, according to the same NYT article.

Where women are concerned, the virginity-tests in military prisons, along with the army’s brutalization of “the blue bra girl,” have come to epitomize the oppression of women in post-Mubarak Egypt. The latter, gave rise to a demonstration of historic proportions; the virginity-tests case—lead by Samira Ibrahim, the first victim to sue the military–exposed sexual harassment as more than the cancer of a patriarchal society: it is, has been, a government practice.

"The Egyptian activist Samira Ibrahim at a protest in Cairo on Tuesday." Source: Nasser Nasser/Associated Press, published in The New York Times, March 15, 2012

The Status of Egyptian Women in 2011,” a press release by The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) contrasts the world’s hopes for Egyptian women versus reality on the ground by pitting the image of “the blue bra girl” against Western media coverage of influential women activists. As an example, the agency cites Dr. Nawal El-Sa’adawy, ranked 16th in “The Guardian’s” most-important 100 female activists, in the world (a list put together in 2011 to mark the centennial of International Women’s Day).

The “social cancer” of sexual harassment in Egypt—as described by the ECWR—was brought to Western light when female journalists were sexually assaulted on Tahrir Square by mobs as well as security forces, but it came as no news to Egyptian women. According to a 2008 study conducted by the same agency, 98 percent of foreign female visitors and 83 percent of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment. Sixty-two percent of men admitted to harassing women, and 53 percent blamed women for encouraging it. Some male respondents used even “boredom” as an excuse for harassing women; one respondent assaulted a woman wearing the “niqab” on the suspicion that she was hiding something desirable.

Thus, contrary to a popular belief—held by men and women, and often used to explain violence against women—the study also showed that the majority of victims dressed modestly and wore traditional headscarves. Perhaps most revealing, while Western women participating in the study had strong expectations of personal safety and freedom of movement, female Egyptian respondents did not—and many blamed themselves for the abuse. Reporting on the ECWR’s study, a BBC News article quoted:

No-one spoke about freedom of choice, freedom of movement or the right to legal protection. No-one showed any awareness that the harasser was a criminal, regardless of what clothes the victim was wearing.

Or, as Rasha Hassan, a researcher involved in the study, told Egypt Independent in 2011, “When we were working on our field study, people didn’t know what sexual harassment meant, and they thought it meant sexual assault.”

In this environment, attempts to criminalize sexual harassment—by NGO’s, such as the ECWR, and women activists, such as Samira Ibrahim—face more than the resistance of military rulers or the rise of religion-based politics. Significant numbers of secular and religious Egyptians, men and women, continue to align themselves with the oppressors, and to engage in the oppression of women.

While the beating of “the blue bra girl” caught on video drew what some historians called the largest, most unified demonstration of women—and men—to the streets, the acquittal of the army doctor has drawn relatively small demonstrations of mostly women. Following the trial, Samira Ibrahim took to Twitter and placed the burden for women’s rights squarely on Egyptians: “No one stained my honor. The one that had her honor stained is Egypt. I will carry on until I restore Egypt’s rights.”

As reported by The New York Times’ “Latitude” blogger, Sarah A. Topol—a Cairo-based journalist who experienced sexual harassment first-hand at Tharir Square—Egyptian women are indeed fighting back, at times with the support of men. Topol mentions a male cordon used to protect a women’s march last December, and Web sites to report harassment. But with a mere 9 women among 498 members in the newly elected Parliament, what are the chances that Egypt’s new constitution will protect such basic women’s rights?

The odds notwithstanding, according to Egypt Independent the controversial NGO, National Council for Women (NCW)—first established under Mubarak in 2000 and once headed by former first-lady, Suzan Mubarak—held a press conference on Wednesday, March 14, to demand that specific women’s rights be protected in the new constitution:

[…] guaranteed gender equality, criminalization of gender discrimination, criminalizing the incitement of hatred or contempt of women by all political parties and religious institutions and the adoption of temporary measures of affirmative action, such as women’s quotas, to ensure equitable representation of women.

On the issue of gender roles, one of the outlined demands called for recognizing motherhood as a social function rather than an exclusive responsibility of women.

Not surprisingly, the NCW has been under fire by Islamist Members of Parliament (MP’s), namely for the agency’s suggested amendments to family laws involving divorce and custody rights for women. Azza al-Garf, a female MP, has criticized the council for defending a Western model that violates Islamic Sharia.

The NCW also faced public protest at a recent lecture on the status of Egyptian women, attended by large numbers from the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom Justice Party. The FJP has criticized the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ for its February decision to reinstate the women’s council, excluding Islamic representation. An FJC report has accused the council of implementing laws that have devastated family and social life in Egypt. The NCW’s new head, Mervat al-Talawy, challenged the accusations and defended the council’s policies. Farkhonda Hassan, a former secretary general of the NCW, also insisted the role of the council was to propose laws, not to implement them, and that the opinion of Al-Azhar Islamic scholars had been solicited and informed the council’s proposals.

This backlash against the NCW was predicted as inevitable by Aliaa Dawood, a professor at the American University in Cairo, in a November op-ed in Egypt Independent:

Egyptian men are busy planning and implementing another revolution, but this time women will not play any role in it whatsoever. This is because it is a revolution against women’s rights.

Among those rights, she named attempts to abolish the “khula” law (a Muslim woman’s right to seek a divorce), reverse amendments to custody laws, and other women’s rights established by international treaties signed by Egypt. The organizations leading the backlash against the NWC–and the “Suzan Mubarak’s laws,” has they have come to be known–have names that suggest a need to save or protect the family. But one organization is simply called “Egyptian Men’s Revolution.”

Dawood breaks down the inevitability of the backlash:

(i) Suzan Mubarak’s laws were based on the first lady herself; her power was limited, and the media’s interest in the work of the NWC was more about the first lady than about women’s rights;

(ii) the state decided which, when and how women’s rights were to be addressed; Egyptian society was not called to the table, thus laws were seen as just another imposition by the regime and were met with the usual resistance;

(iii) some of the laws were presented as if taking rights from men to give to women; the tables turned when men began talking about being oppressed, and organizations formed to defend the rights of men—before the revolution.

After the revolution, the same men saw the fall of Mubarak as an opportunity to recover lost ground. Last month, the “Egyptian Men’s Revolution” staged a protest in front of the People’s Assembly accusing the NWC of being sexist, hostile toward men, and unconstitutional, on the basis of “discrimination.”

Women’s active participation in revolutions does not guarantee progress in women’s rights—as the Iranian revolution demonstrated. In the case of Egypt, a pertinent alternative to the question,where are the women, now, might be…

How will women define themselves or be defined (by men) in the new Egypt?

This past week, Egypt Independent published a fascinating op-ed by Marwa Sharafeldin, a rights activist and a PhD Candidate in the Law Faculty of Oxford University, titled “The ‘hareem’ of the new Egyptian constitution.”

Marwa Sharafeldin speaking at the Doha Debates, March 2011.

On her way to a recent march, Sharafeldin witnessed a telling exchange between two youths and an elderly woman. In brief, one of the young men cursed the day—and cursed all women—should he ever have to “take money from a woman.” When called on his cursing by a passing elderly woman, the youth set her apart by addressing her as “my mother,” a term used to show respect to older women: “Not all hareem [women] are like you, my mother,” he said. Sharafeldin explains the meaning of hareem, the plural of horma: “it means women, but it holds within it meanings of dependency, weakness and need for protection and concealment.”

The response of the elderly woman was cathartic: “I’m not a horma, I’m a dakar [man].” The author explains, that while the word “dakar” implies superiority, the word “horma” implies subordination. She makes the point that, while women are the main breadwinners in nearly a third of Egyptian households, the episode illustrates that men continue to show aversion to the idea of depending on women, or seeing them as equal. She fears this kind of thinking is particularly dangerous as Egypt’s new constitution begins to be drafted:

If the new constitution only recognizes the full “citizenship” of Egyptian men because they are the strong able citizens of this country, and discriminates against women, denying them full citizenship rights under a pretext of being subordinate hareem, it would be a catastrophe. “

The future law doctor goes on to uncover specific articles and language in the present constitution and discusse some of the pitfalls of such a framework—well worth reading! She ends suggestion a different kind of response to the young man who cursed all self-sufficient, independent hareem:

“I’m not a horma, I’m an Egyptian citizen!”

UPDATE: March 19, 2012

In 1872,  Susan B. Anthony, the co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association and pioneer of the women’s rights movement in the United States, was arrested and convicted of the crime of voting in the 1872 presidential election. The following year, when she was brought to trial, she delivered an historic speech before the court. As I happened to listen to that speech today, Marwa Sharafeldin’s quote came echoing at this point of Anthony’s speech:

The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.