Women Taking Action!
Women Step to Frontline in Mideast Protests
Women’s political gains will be a litmus test for fledgling governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain, says Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock without wi-fi for the past month, you know the world has witnessed waves of political change in the Middle East. On February 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak relinquished control of the country to the military, and stepped down after nearly three decades in power. His resignation was the culmination of over two weeks of protests in Cairo, where hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy supporters rallied to decry Mubarak’s years of abuses.
What had begun as a group of youth activists working online soon grew into a major movement, with both men and women flocking to Tahrir Square in protest, unusual for this predominantly Muslim country.
“Egyptian women often shun crowded public places,” writes Laura King for the Los Angeles Times, “fearing the pervasive sexual harassment that is the norm here. Simply walking down a Cairo street can be an ordeal of catcalls, pinching and unwanted propositions. But women attending the protests reported being treated with an unaccustomed respect. . . . Gaggles of teenage girls, dignified matrons and white-haired grandmothers have trekked daily to the square, swelling the crowd at a time when numbers were a crucial gauge of opposition power.”
Egyptian women drew encouragement from women protesters in Tunisia, following a rebellion that also found its roots online. Tunisian women used Facebook and Twitter to reach out to their Egyptian counterparts with bits of wisdom learned during their own revolution: “Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas,” The New York Times quoted one Tunisian advice-giver as saying. “This is a protest against patriarchy in all its forms, and that is the kind of thinking that can find its way into every home,” said 29-year-old Reem Naguib, a doctoral student at Northwestern University working on her dissertation at home in Egypt.
“It’s a revolution in how we’re perceived.”
Not everyone agrees with Naguib. Mona Russel, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, says that women have played a role in Egyptian uprisings before. “Women were at the forefront of the 1919 revolution in Egypt right before Egypt got its independence, in the struggle against the British; women were prominent at the time of the French occupation as well,” Public Radio International quotes Ruheya, a 21-year-old Egyptian university student, as saying. “So Egyptian women have been involved in protests for many, many years; this isn’t something new.”
It’s also uncertain how the political changes in Tunisia and Egypt are going to affect women there. While some, like Naguib, see the protests as liberating, others worry that Islamic fundamentalists might push toward a “radical Muslim state like Iran.” If that were the case, basic freedoms — to vote, to marry with consent, to pursue education, to name a few — would undoubtedly be hindered. “Women’s rights will be a litmus test for the new government,” writes Isobel Coleman for The Washington Post, in reference to Egypt, “a sign of where the country is headed.”
Meanwhile, a group of women in Jos, Nigeria, are threatening to launch similar protests over the treatment of women and children in their country. Calling themselves the Women Without Walls Initiative, members are decrying the lack of female representation in all levels of government, especially in light of the fact that most victims in crisis situations are women and children.
“We note with deep dismay that despite concerted efforts of the state authorities to curb violence and bloodshed, the trend of killings have continued, with women and children being the major casualties of this regime of violence and wanton killing,” said initiative coordinator Esther Ibanga. “The STF [Special Task Force in Plateau State] should discharge its duties with the fear of Almighty God who created human life and who has assigned the sacred responsibility to safeguard it.”
Political unrest is far from a new phenomenon; the entire story of Christianity has played out against backdrops of political upheaval. What stands out among the current protests is the role that women are playing, and how that role may play out as new regimes come to power. Having helped to midwife some of these recent changes, are women going to revel in new-found freedoms or be relegated, once again, to the sidelines in public life?
Writing for The Washington Post, Kathy Lally quotes political activist Marwa Faroak about the Egyptian protests: “It was amazing to see men and women together when we took to the streets. A lot of people were saying Tahrir Square was the future of Egypt, men and women equal, fighting for freedom. And now we have to translate this into action and change.”
CNN tells the story of a woman who, days after the ousting of the president in Egypt, was verbally heckled by an army officer. “I got out of my car, opened the door of his car and slapped him in the face,” Nawara Belal is quoted as saying. “I realized he wouldn’t do anything about it, and it gave me the power to do what I wanted to do to every harasser in my past. I would never have been able to do that before the revolution.”
A slap in the face might feel like a step in the right direction, but is it? When basic rights for women extend past education and government representation to abortion rights and the choice to wear a miniskirt, we ought to remember that a political philosophy of absolute individual freedom, unmoored from love of neighbor and personal responsibility, can wreak havoc in a society and its people, men and women alike. The tenuous status of women in protesting countries begins to seem even more precarious.
With this in mind, Christians are wise to continue praying not only for political freedom — which is an essential expression of human dignity and equality in a modern democracy — but also for the possibility of true freedom for people in the Middle East: the perfect rule of Christ over men’s and women’s hearts and minds.
Women Taking Action at Frontline in Mideast Protests!
March 7, 2011 By Leave a Comment