Whither the Revolution for Women in Egypt and Yemen?

Where are the brave, feminist women and men who helped to bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and who have long been agitating against Saleh in Yemen, now?  About a quarter of the million protesters who brought down the Egyptian dictator were women.   Tawakul Karman, who has led anti-government protests at Sana’a University for years, voices the concerns of progressive Yemeni women. Time Magazine and The Guardian call her the “head of the Yemeni protest movement,” but what power does she really have? Will the men–and so far in Egypt they are all men–who rise to power because of these women value or represent their concerns?  To ask this question is not simply to inquire about politics  in the Middle East, but also to consider how deeply entrenched misogynist attitudes and customs will influence the new states to come.

Nesrine Malik, writing for Altmuslimah, argues that the few women who have been featured as central to the Arab uprisings have been “tokenized” and do not represent any genuine egalitarian development in the Middle East:

While the prominence of women in the revolutions has been moving, there is a psychology behind celebrating and glorifying women’s political activity when it is part of a popular push. In these times women are almost tokenised by men as the ultimate downtrodden victims, the sign that things are desperate, that even members of the fairer sex are leaving their hearths and taking to the streets. The perception isn’t that women are fighting for their own rights, but merely that they are underwriting the revolution by bringing their matronly dignity to the crowd like some mascot

It was not a good sign when, on February 11, the day Mubarak fell, groups of men in Tahrir square groped numerous female protesters, and a gang of thugs from the crowd raped CBS journalist Lara Logan.

It was also not good when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over, appointed an all-male panel of legal experts to revise the Egyptian constitution.  A broad coalition of women’s groups immediately demanded that women have a greater part in planning the future state and that at least one woman lawyer be appointed to the panel, but their concerns were ignored.  On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of Egyptian women marched in Tahrir Square.  Instead of being celebrated for their heroic role in bringing down an oppressive regime, they were assaulted hordes of hostile men, who soon outnumbered them,  shouting insults and commanding them to “Go home, where you belong.”  Groups of men attacked and beat many female protesters and chased them down the streets.

Egypt and Yemen are ranked 125 and 134 out of 134 countries in a World Economic Forum report on the status of women.  Forty-two per cent of Egyptian and 57 per cent of Yemeni women are illiterate.  Genital mutilation is still practiced in rural parts of Egypt. Women occupied 8 of 454 seats in Parliament in Egypt and no seats in Yemen’s government.   Egyptian men freely grope, harrass, and insult women on the streets without fear of punishment.  The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported in 2008 that the majority of women had been harrassed, most frequently by state security officers.

Amnesty International reports that the Yemeni women “are valued as half the worth of men when they testify in court or when their families are compensated if they are murdered.”  Feminists have recently called for and end to the hideous practice of forcing girls into marriage at very young ages, sometimes as young as 8.  Last year a 12-year-old died from injuries sustained when her 30 year-old husband forced himself on her.  Another, 13, bled to death after her husband tied her up and raped her.  Predictably, top Yemeni clerics have denounced those who have called for a ban on the practice as apostates.

The recent abominable treatment of a very brave Libyan woman, whom Muammar el-Qaddaff’s forces raped, then abducted, isolated, and interrogated for days, has highlighted discriminatory attitudes in that part of the world as well.  The New York Times reports that

Like many traditionalist countries in the region, Libyans often treat rape as a crime against the honor of a woman or her family, rather than as an attack on the woman herself. In some families, a girl or woman who has been raped is cast out or shunned.

The change in the Egyptian regime so far has not made women any safer.

On March 9 the military cleared Tahrir Square of protesters and took at least 18 women into custody at an annex to the Cairo Museum. There soldiers beat or strip-searched these women while other men watched and took photographs.  They also forced the women to submit to “virginity tests” and threatened those “not found to be virgins” with  prostitution charges.  One woman found not to be a virgin by this humiliating “test” said soldiers afterwards gave her electric shocks.

Amnesty International has described these forced “virginity checks” as torture designed to degrade women because they are women and called for all medical personel in Egypt to refuse to administer these tests.

Journalist Rasha Azeb, whom the military detained, testified that soldiers  handcuffed, beat, and insulted her.  Before she was released, she heard the screams of the other women being given electric shocks and beaten.

17 women, including 20-year old Salwa Hosseini, were taken to a military prison in Heikstep, where guards tortured them further.  Ms. Hosseini told Amnesty International that

she was made, with the other women, to take off all her clothes to be searched by a female prison guard, in a room with two open doors and a window.  During the strip search, Salwa Hosseini said male soldiers were looking into the room and taking pictures of the naked women.

Let us remember that the men who did this were not working for Mubarak, although such abuses certainly took place under his watch.  These events took place under the jurisdiction of the provisional government.  Will they continue to occur?  Who will stop them?  Will they prompt Egyptians to vote for a more religious order, a rule of Shariah law?

Egyptian women are incredibly strong and determined.  Witness Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi, the determined feminist who founded Global Solidarity for Secular Society and who has been working to liberate women for more than fifty years.  Dr. Sadaawi argues that women need more than what passes for “democracy” in the modern world.  Women will only be free when the underlying roots of misogyny are broken apart and exposed to the light, where they will wither away.  Until men stop learning to demean, degrade, and condescend to women, the political systems that come into place will perpetuate these practices.

Sexism–prejudice–the unconscious or conscious belief that women do not have the same rights to self-determination, to subjecthood, to speaking out, to being visible, to making choices about their own bodies, to moving through public space independently, that men enjoy–this is the underlying cancer that destroys all societies.

Androcentrism, the mistaken belief that the world centers around men and that men should be in charge of women, is at the root of all other forms of oppression, because sexual difference is the first difference, the foundation of the awareness of self and other. Masculinism is a pernicious an evil in the European and American West as it is in the Arab world, and this is why feminists across the globe have reached out to one another.

Until we can learn to live with one another’s differences, whatever they may be (and they might be different ways of being male, different ways of being female, different ways of being sexual, different ways of interpreting anatomies and proclivities), until we can learn to stop forcing human beings to accept extremely rigid and narrow sexual roles (all women must…and all men will….), we will not be free.

The first step towards freedom, real liberty for women and for men, is to separate the state from the church, because nearly all world religions perpetuate the false belief that men are superior to women.   But as we have seen under Mubarak and Saleh and under every US president, setting up a secular government is not in itself enough to eradicate widespread prejudice and violence against women.

The only thing that will bring about the kind of change that we all desperately need is a feminist consciousness and a dedicated belief in the political, economic, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual equality of women.  The revolutionary action that thousands of Egyptian and Yemeni women have taken in the past months has done a lot to remind women–and women are the ones who most of all need to believe, to embrace this truth–that they are inherently as valuable as human beings as men, and that all women and all men, including gay and transgender and bisexual and cross-dressing women and men, possess the same rights to self-determination and social power as the dominant, heterosexual men who currently dominate global politics.

The argument I am making here should be clear:  thousands of lion-hearted women and feminist men have stood up to oppression in general, and against women in particular, across the Arab world.  It is wonderful to see Dr. Saadawi and Ms. Karman get the recognition they deserve after their years of struggle against and persecution by their governments.  I also salute Saida Sadouni, the Tunisian feminist “widely hailed as the mother of Tunisia’s revolution, a living record of her country’s modern history and its struggle for emancipation” and agree with Soumaya Ghanoushi, a writer for the Guardian who argues that Arab women have shattered Western prejudices of submissive, veiled women and

refuse to be treated with contempt, kept in isolation, or be taken by the hand, like a child, and led on the road to emancipation. They are taking charge of their own destinies, determined to liberate themselves as they liberate their societies from dictatorship. The emancipation they are shaping with their own hands is an authentic one defined by their own needs, choices and priorities.

Yes, all of this is true.  But it is also true that revolution may bring about a change in regime but not a change in deeply rooted attitudes towards women, not only in the Arab world, but here at home.  Feminists in Egypt and Yemen have been working hard to bring about truly egalitarian change for many years.  I support them and hope that their cause remains in the spotlight, because their cause is our cause.

Yet Another Brave Egyptian Woman Standing Against Tyranny

Yesterday I received a message, indirectly, from Dr. Iman Bibars, in the form of a comment on one of my posts.  Dr. Bibars is affiliated with Ashoka, an organization that, in its own words, “strives to shape a global, entrepreneurial, competitive citizen sector.”   The Ashoka website explains that she holds a Ph.D. in Development Studies from Sussex University and lives in Cairo, where she has

dedicated her life to working with marginalized and voiceless groups: female heads of households in Egypt’s poorest areas, street children, street vendors and garbage collectors. She has also worked with UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, CARE-Egypt, GTZ and KFW.  Lastly, Iman is herself a social entrepreneur, co-founding and currently chairing The Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, a CSO providing credit and legal aid for impoverished women heading their households.

Here is what Dr. Bibars has written to the world about Egypt:

What has happened in Egypt the last week or more is unprecedented and is a wonderful and revitalizing experience for all Egyptians who love this country. This is our first real people revolution and it is fueled by wonderful and great young men and women from all walks of Egypt. The liberation square has become a symbol for all our sufferings and also our victories.  I cannot claim that I have suffered as many Egyptians did and many of the young revolutionaries asked me why am I supporting them although I have been benefiting (their words) or have not been harmed by the old regime.  My only answer was that I loved Egypt and that to be loyal and patriotic to this country means that you want the best for her and you want her to be free and her people to be liberated and treated as humans.

For me Egypt is a she, a her and the mother of all Egyptians and the matriarch that has kept us all in her bosom and nurtured us whether we were grateful or not.   And what the regime of husni Mubarak and the security apparatus headed by the war criminal habib al adly have done to us and to the people of Egypt for 30 years is unparalleled in any other country.  The humiliation and destruction of the Egyptian character and the spirit of the people in a calculated and organized way took place for 30 years in a relentless and very evil way.

Egyptians stopped laughing or smiling from their hearts, you could see and touch helplessness and hopelessness among the old and the young.  Phenomena such as sexual harassment, looting and predominance of thugs spread because they were encouraged by the security that wanted to break the pride and self respect of all Egyptians.

The murdering and killing was not only of peoples bodies and lives but of their souls and spirits.  Corruption and lack of ethical fiber and self respect became the norm, became the traits most respected. I am as you all know quite mature (i.e. old) and have been here since the 60s and I have worked with the people and in the streets and was naïve enough to try  to enter politics believing that this country needed those who loved her and who would give more then they would take.

I was burnt and burnt hard and not only from the government but from the pretenders or those who played the roles of defenders of human rights or of the people but who in many cases found it lucrative to play that role. My mistake was that I always followed my conscience and what I thought was right and was neither extreme left nor extreme right.

What happened in Egypt during the last 5 years at least what I found out broke my heart and I started thinking and acting seriously to leave the country to go and live somewhere else. I did not feel there was any hope left.

But then on the 25th and when I was home and discovering the internet world , face book and you tube for the first time in my life, I also rediscovered Egypt, the Egypt I have read about and dreamed about. The brave and noble youth of Egypt have resurrected our pride and soul.  They have revived the real spirit and soul of Egypt.  They have taken away our shame of being so spineless and useless for decades.

They have and for the first time in our history carried a real people’s revolution at least during my life time. They managed to reveal the true face of our security and police forces, those traitors who abandoned their posts and allowed our children and families to die, be attacked and vandalized. Many of the looters and thugs were reported were associated one way or the other with the police.

They did not mind that mothers, elders and children be terrorized in a an effort to abort the revolution and scare all of the liberation square heroes away from their main battle.  They did not care  and frankly this is what the last regime had shown over and over again, that they do not care for us, for the Egyptians or for Egypt. That is why they should not stay, they should go , they should not be allowed to rule or govern as they are in reality traitors who hate us.

No one who loves his country and its people would have allowed the scandal and shameful behavior of the security forces not only in murdering and torturing the protesters but more so in terrorizing the kind people of Egypt by opening the prisons, and sending their own thugs to steal, loot and vandalize shops, homes and the nice and simple Egyptian families.

Now at this moment and after the maneuvers of the state , a peaceful transition of power is becoming less of a reality and clashes between the youth of Egypt, the real revolutionaries and those pushed and prompted by the state and the NDP is going on now. I just learned that the liberation square is completely blocked and the army tanks are around it and also blocking any means to go in or out.

The state TV is sending wrong images and stories and lying to the people of Egypt,  the regime and its NDP are sending thugs and some paid youth to start fights with the heroes of the liberation square and our youth are in deep danger.  They are being under siege now and are being attacked by disguised thugs and security forces, the army has blocked all inroads to the liberation square and the mercenaries of the regime are beating and attacking women, girls and young men whose only demand was freedom and liberty.

If we can reach all Egyptians everywhere and tell them that the revolution is not and will not be over, I met several young people and they said that they are willing to die for Egypt in the liberation square but we do not want to sacrifice those clean souls. Please lets all see a way to save them and tell  all of Egypt that the mercenaries of the regime are the ones taking to the street now and that no one should give up the demands for a better and more liberated and free Egypt.  Please do not believe the state TV  for there are no outside forces or traitors among the revolutionaries who wanted our pride and self worth and respect to return to us.

Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi: Brave Egyptian Feminist, in Liberation (Tahrir) Square

“I feel I am born again,”  Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi told an American reporter, who bumped in to her in Tahrir Square.  The 80-year old woman along with thousands of other peaceful demonstrators, was planning to spend the night in the square.  Like everything else she has done, this was a brave and bold decision.  Mubarak’s monsters, the secret police, were then roaming the streets with nail-studded boards, hunting photographers, journalists, and human rights activists, and beating anyone who tried to make it into the Square.

Dr. Sadaawi, a fierce feminist, novelist, medical doctor, psychiatrist,  has faced down imprisonment, death threats, attempts to strip her of her nationality, and the persecution of her family, all in the name of liberty for all human beings.   For nearly half a century she has campaigned against female genital circumcision– genital circumcision (a bloody practice in which a girl’s clitoris and inner labia are sliced off with a knife, often without painkillers).  Because she spoke out against this barbaric practice, and published a non-fiction book, Women and Sex, in 1972, that mentioned it, the Egyptian Ministry of Health fired her from her position as Director of Public Health.  The government charged her with crimes against the state and jailed her for three months in 1981.  Death threats in 1993 forced her to flee her country. She returned to Cairo in 2009.  Since then, officials frightened by her thoughts on religion have attempted, unsuccessfully, to strip her of her nationality and forcibly to dissolve her marriage.

She has long advocated the separation of church and state, arguing that religious beliefs oppress women and impede democracy.   She founded the Global Solidarity for Secular Society out of her conviction, which I share, that religion should be separate from all public education and laws.   In an interview with The Guardian, she explained,

I am very critical of all religions…We, as women, are oppressed by all these religions.…

There is a backlash against feminism all over the world today because of the revival of religions…We have had a global and religious fundamentalist movement.

And what does feminism mean for her?

For me feminism includes everything…It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice . . . It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.

One of the most remarkable things about the phenomenon taking place in Egypt right now–and across the Arab world–is that the movement has no clear leaders.  What drives it is not a set of rules, or laws, or religious commands, but rather a something much deeper and more humane than this, something deeply human, the longing to be free, to be able to live peaceably with one another, to embrace, to love, to work, to eat, to walk, to be alive in the world without dictators, or oppressive rules that crush the spirit, without barbarism.  The people, men, women, old, young, have come together to celebrate the beauty of their connection to one another as Egyptians, yes, but also as human beings, each one of whom has an inherent right to dignity, to liberty, and to think for one’s self.

When asked, in 2009, why she continued to write and speak out so controversially, in spite of the persecution and the violence that has been her reward, Dr. Saadawi said,

I cannot stop. There is no way back.

The people of Egypt are calling for their freedom.  There is no way back.  The will die for their liberty.  How can we not support them?

Brave Egyptian Women Protest Against Tyranny: Egyptian Revolt, Day 6

I hope you have all been following the truly astounding events unfolding in Egypt, where thousands upon thousands of protesters thronged into the streets for the sixth consecutive day to demand an end to the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which most view as corrupt and repressive.

Many protesters have been shot, and the military has mobilized against the people in every major city.   This morning state television announced that the Egyptian authorities were “revoking the Al Jazeera Network’s licence to broadcast from the country, and will be shutting down its bureau office in Cairo.” This is obviously a deliberate attempt to quash the freedom of the press, which is not going to make Mubarak more popular with his own people or supporters of democracy around the world.

I am posting some photos from Al Jazeera that show women, many unveiled, taking part in these largely peaceful demonstrations.

Tawakul Karman Update

Yes, yes, it’s all very wonderful (and I sincerely mean this) that Tawakul Karman has been released from prison.  And I admire and respect her call for greater freedoms of expression and for her leadership of Women Journalists for Change.  It’s hard to stand up to a government that forces women–look at them–to shroud themselves from head to toe.  Look, it’s currently the fad in academic feminist circles to defend the veil and to stand up for it, which is kind of weird.

Obviously, women, all women, everywhere, ought to have the freedom to wear a veil if they want to, and I can understand the sense of freedom that one might have while walking around anonymously in public.

But the problem is that there we are not talking about women making the choice to wear the veil, but rather about a culture in which women who choose to take the veil off are made to feel like sluts.  Imposing the veil on women is an ancient way of manipulating and controlling women in public.

Are the women in the photo above, Tawakul Karman’s supporters, wearing the veil to dodge police cameras or for cultural reasons?  Either way, they are wearing it out of fear, fear of what would happen to them were they to show their faces and bodies in the world.  Are women are wearing the veil because they “choose” to, or because they fear what will happen to them if they don’t? Karman shed her veil.  Her followers may not have the luxury to do the same.

Just so you know where I stand, I think that the idiot-brained American bigots who have shamed Muslim women and girls in this country for wearing the veil are uncivilized barbarians and assholes who ought to be fined, jailed, and made to do long and tedious hours of community service for their crimes.  And the French!  The French have always been stupidly self-centered about their culture.  If a woman wants to drape herself in black, let her.  If she likes to cover her hair, so be it!  We don’t go after Orthodox Jews who cover their hair with wigs.  Why harrass Muslim women?  Let people be as they wish to be, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.  And no one is hurt by my neighbor’s headscarf.

In response to more than 5,000 protesters, many of them women, Yemeni authorities released activist Tawakul Karman yesterday, but quickly arrested lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Al-Anesi, who had been defending Karman.  Al-Anesi was arrested as he tried to reach the attorney general to explain why Karman’s arrest was illegal.  Security forces rushed him and carried him, along with a number of other human rights activists, to prison.

Both Al-Anesi and Karman are reported to be in good spirits and hopeful for political change.  Speaking at a rally after her release, Karman said,

We will continue our struggle until regime change happens in our happy country. We will defend order in our country, we will defend the system, the constitution, the law. The Jasmine Revolution will continue until the entire regime goes.

Karman is pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has dominated Yemeni politics for more than 30 years, to step down.  Parliament has recently considered changing the rules of terms limits, which would allow Saleh to appoint himself president for life.

More than 1000 civilians protested the crackdown on freedom of expression outside the office of the general prosecutor. Among the protesters was Naif al-Qanes, a leader in JMP and the chairman of the political administration in The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.  He was beaten and arrested this morning.  [Source: Hood].

Where these protests for greater freedom of expression in Yemen will lead is hard to say. Saleh is clearly concerned, if not frightened by the civil unrest and the outrage that his government’s arrest of Karman has sparked.  This morning’s New York Times reports that President Saleh, perhaps in response to these civil protests, has raised military salaries and cut taxes in half.  A “Jasmine Revolution” that would bring about greater civil liberties and a more democratic government would certainly be a good thing, especially if such a government were able to rid itself of  Al Qaeda in the region.   The current administration in Yemen makes a show of cooperating with the US, but has not so far managed to rout the group out.

Yemen is a poor country governed by tribal powers and characterized by powerful, traditional cultural patterns.   It is an unlikely spot for the blossoming of calls for greater civil rights, freedom of expression, and greater civil liberties for women by women.  Tawakul Karman has blossomed here, and inspired thousands of women to follow her.  She leads an organization called “Women Journalists without Chains” in a society in which women are frequently silenced and shut away.

To say this is not to argue that American women, many of whom voluntarily enslave themselves to men for economic or emotional reasons, are significantly more enlightened.  Nevertheless the educational, political and economic freedoms for women are much greater in this country than they are currently in Yemen or many other Muslim countries. That American women fail to make use of these freedoms is quite another problem for a later discussion.

We are talking about Yemen.  We are talking about a culture in which women are expected to remain silent and in which we see women speaking out and calling for greater freedom of expression.  This is important.  I am writing about it because I am hopeful and because I admire this activist.  I remain troubled by her affiliation with Islah, an apparently fundamentalist party that would subject the country to a narrower, Muslim (Shariah) rule of law.  I worry that the rise of  this party could set women back.   But for now, this woman is not stepping back.