“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:

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.

Egypt’s Elections: Owning the Revolution

Egyptians young and old, educated or illiterate—and unprecedented numbers of women—were early to rise and quick to line outside polling stations to participate in the first free elections in 30 years, nine months after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

Women voters outside a polling station in Alexandria. Photo by Evan Hill/AlJazeera

News and analysis of Egypt’s elections have been largely about looming dangers and uncertainties facing the country, the violence and divisions of recent weeks, and the worries and skepticism of the International Community.

But for Egyptians, Tunisians, and anyone who has ever experienced life under a dictatorship, the site of people lining up to vote is cause for jubilation and the most reassuring sign that the revolution is working.

Some Egyptian activists chose to boycott the election, partly because they feel the same old guard is in charge of the process—“a circus,” one Egyptian blogger and activist called it (Al Jazeera). A complicated and staggered election system (Reuters), hundreds of parliamentary seats to fill, thousands of unknown candidates, and even the predictability of results (CFR), are all less than ideal circumstances. But Egyptian voters deserve their day of pride and jubilation. Considering voter turnout, and the remarkable engagement of youth and women voters, they also deserve to be hopeful and be trusted with their future.

The New Arab Revolt, an e-book published by the Council of Foreign Relations in May of this year, begins with a reference toPortugal’s 1974 “carnation revolution,” a bloodless military coup that ended 48 years of fascist ruling. I remember walking to the market after school that day in April and wondering about the cheers in the distance. Soldiers stood on armored cars circling the market, while vendors and shoppers clapped, cheered, and threw flowers. In those days, the country had but two state-run TV channels which aired only in the afternoon and evening. It was mostly word-of-mouth that spread news of the revolution, and with such limited means of speech, it’s hard to imagine how the people, instead of the military, could have overthrown the regime. Tumultuous years of political and social upheaval would follow, but the democratic process was nonetheless established.

Nearly a year ago, one young Tunisian man—Mohamed Bouazizi—could not have imagined the revolutions his tragic protest would spark across the Middle East(see this interactive timeline at The Guardian). The human cost of these movements must be present to individual countries and the International Community, as they choose their place in this new world order. But youth, their aspirations and demands, have been at heart and helm of these bold revolutions. Media and technology have played a powerful role in mobilizing protesters and exposing authoritarian rulers and regimes. Political consciousness and solidarity have given shape and strength to civil societies, making it increasingly difficult for recalcitrant establishments to go unchallenged.

And that’s enough to feel hopeful for Egyptians as they go to the polls.

[Note: This post appeared in the Huffington Post]