North African women press for freedom, rights and dignity

Note to the editor: The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt appear to have set the stage for a wave of women’s activism in Africa, with a fresh demand for freedom and dignity. Fatma Naib examines this phenomenon for UN Africa Renewal

By Fatma Naib

August 9, 2011 (SSNA) — Arab women have shown that women can play important roles in revolutionary events. In Egypt and Tunisia they participated in the popular uprisings for democracy. “The women contributed equally to the revolution, like the men,” affirms Emna Ben Jemaa, a Tunisian lecturer and journalist. “We took part in protests in the street, without any discrimination against us.”

Women’s activism is not a recent development, notes Ms. Jemaa. “For Tunisian women, independence is not something that came with the revolution, it has been there.” Before national independence in 1955, Tunisian women faced discrimination. They were taken out of school, forbidden to see male doctors and limited in the political sphere. Yet during this period Tunisian women developed began fighting to advance their role.

With independence, President Habib Bourguiba helped advance the role of women. A “Personal Status Code,” adopted in 1956, gave women unprecedented rights including the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, to receive wages equal to those of men, access to mixed-gender education and the right to divorce.

As a result, the women’s movement in Tunisia is relatively advanced compared to those in other Middle Eastern countries, notes Ms. Jemaa. This paved the way for their prominent involvement in the revolution that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14.

After President Ali’s ouster, members of the previously banned Islamist Nahda Party returned to the country. The party will be allowed to participate in Tunisia’s elections, but that does not worry Ms. Jemaa.

“People assume that Islamism would interfere with women’s rights and freedom. But this is not necessarily correct,” she says. “When Islam came to mankind, women used to work and played an active role in society. So I don’t understand why people assume that the presence of an Islamist political party will lead to the exclusion of women.”

However, Ms. Jemaa admits that there are fears of a backlash for women’s freedom if the country is ruled by a religious party. “People look at the examples of Algeria and Iran. History has proven that there is no guarantee that an Islamic party such as al-Nahda will secure women’s rights.” So Tunisians need to be on guard, she concludes.

The revolution in Tunisia inspired people in Egypt on 25 January to demand freedom and dignity. But even before the uprising, female factory workers had staged major strikes in 2007 in the city of Mahallah.

In Egypt women accounted for 40 to 50 per cent of the demonstrators during the 18 days that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. With and without veils, they set up barricades, shouted slogans and risked their lives. The idea that men and women should be different was set aside. Nawara Najm, an Egyptian journalist and human rights activist, recalls how she fought side by side with the men. “When we had to fight, I fought. When we had to hurl stones, I did. When we had to shout slogans, I did.”

On 28 January, dubbed the “day of rage,” she and other women helped mobilize the resistance. “When the police clashes intensified and the shooting escalated, some of the guys would retreat. At that point all the women would push to the front. When our male fellow revolutionaries would see us do that, they would return immediately.”

That day also brought Ms. Najm’s worst memory, when a person died next to her. “We were on the bridge by the Nile. What upset me was that his death was preventable, but we couldn’t call an ambulance. I tried to use my phone, but the lines were cut. Then he shut his eyes. I asked if he was asleep, but another person told me that he had passed away.”

For Ms. Najm, the revolution is ongoing. “We managed to topple the head of the regime, but the entire regime is not gone yet and our key demands have not been met.

“I am not too worried about the Muslim Brotherhood having political power. They are a political organization that has the same right as everyone else. No one can stand in the way of the people anymore.”

Salma El Tarzi, a film maker, echoes Ms. Najm. “I am not into any political parties. I prefer to remain neutral for now. I know I will always be in the ‘opposition,’ so I am ready to demonstrate, or fight.”

Ms. Tarzi is agitated as she speaks about how soldiers cleared Tahrir Square on 9 March: “They violently dispersed the crowd and arrested several activists, including women who had to undergo forced virginity tests. Those who failed the tests and were not married were charged with prostitution.”

Nabila Ramdani, a French political analyst of Algerian origin, compares women’s roles in Tunisia and Egypt with their situation in the 1954-1962 Algerian independence war. “Women played an important role in the battle for Algerian independence. They planted bombs and acted as informants.” She blames a mixture of religion, culture and law for the current state of affairs in Algeria. But in post-revolution Tunisia, she adds, the voice of women is louder because it is a secular society, with a distinction between religion and the rule of law.

Ms. Ramdani is optimistic about the future, because women are speaking up as is evident in the Arab world, including in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving, several women drivers have posted videos online showing themselves defying the ban. “It was previously unthinkable that women there would defy the king.”

Women in different parts of the region face different challenges. While some countries have accomplished more, it seems that women in the Arab world want their voices to be heard. They want their basic human rights to be respected in societies that are free and fair for all.

Africa Renewal

Fatma Naib is a reporter for the Al Jazeera news network.

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