CAIRO â€" They did not expect the joy and the despair, the potential and the tribulations that have spanned six long years. They were allured by calls for freedom and social justice before they were hit hard by authoritarian regimes and objectified by the region's Salafists in both the East and the West.
They held on to their right to be present in the streets before the parliaments. They were active online and led various national committees on the ground, where they organized and mobilized for syndicates more than working toward positions in political parties. They were part of the masses that faced rubber bullets and live ammunition. They stood their ground in the face of physical harassment, smear campaigns, detention, torture, displacement and captivity. They did not retreat or long for a patriarchal sanctuary.
We all recall the female doctor in the makeshift clinic who removed the bullets from the protesters' bodies and numbed the pain; the female journalist documenting the injured and the dead; the female student exposed to virginity tests before being detained. We recall that brave girl, a survivor of rape, who had to pull through the trauma of the crime and familial stigma. She endured without blaming the revolution or its aspiration for change, without internalizing societyâ€™s desire to erase her from memory.
How can we forget the mothers who, fearing for their children, objected to their participation in protests in vain, only to receive news of their imprisonment, forced disappearance and torture with tears of defiance? How can we forget the young women who lost their loved ones in Shiqa, Aleppo, Maspero, Qasrayn, Benghazi, Aden, and how they have survived alone?
Who among us is not astounded by the bravery of female lawyers and activists who long for a glimpse of sunshine while they are unjustly imprisoned in horrid cells? Or those who have memorized the shapes of the stones of prison gates from their long waits to visit their loved ones? Who among us is not proud of the women working in rehabilitation centers who have prepared many groups to help sexual assault survivors, and worked on documenting the effects of the counterrevolutionâ€™s psychological and physical abuse of the female body? Who is not proud of our feminists?
How can we forget the Syrian women refugees in Arab and Western countries who startle us with their diligence to make ends meet for their families? As they cook, sell and move endlessly, they dust away the pitfalls of pity and staleness of life in the camps.
Before ministers, entrepreneurs, princesses, ambassadors or political experts, these women give meaning to International Women's Day in the Arab world â€" a meaning that comes with a heavy price and hard work.
The women of the Arab world have protested, authored, nursed. They have been caretakers, legal councils, rights activists. They have collected funds for the camps and taught their children. And all their efforts have given room for Arab women to narrate their own stories as protagonists.
The story of Arab women today surpasses international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), or the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, whose aim was to promote gender equality and empower women. The story of Arab women today derides any hyperbolic enlightenment rhetoric; it is a narrative that defies all the Islamic State-like religious bigots â€" both the barefaced ones and those claiming to be modern.
It is a narrative that declares that we, the women, have fought as women. We have engaged in war, just like men. Our youth have joined in the fury of street battles. We have supported our families. We have traded in the markets. We have experienced fear and fled for our lives. We have endured loss, poverty and displacement in the quest for freedom and a just future. We will never allow the meta-narratives to crush us or subdue us under empty religious and national slogans.
We have a voice now, one that we did not acquire through education or by inheritance, one that was not granted to us by governments. We acquired it the hard way through our everyday resistance and endurance amid a global scrabble for money and arms.
We are the protagonists of our own story. We no longer accept being divided and categorized as mothers, martyrs, poor, intellectual, immigrants, artists ... We are part of a whole. We move gracefully and steadily between all roles. We mend our wounds and move on.
If you can only realize how much has changed and disappeared thanks to the new meaning of the Arabic feminine.
The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.
The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.
This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.
Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.
Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."
The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.
Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.
Governing under threat
As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.
Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:
There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.
Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:
I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.
Another, this time in South Africa, said:
What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.
In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.
Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.
It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.
New Zealand's parliament in Wellington
Compassion and education
While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.
Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.
A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.
Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.
Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.
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