Geopolitics

Arab Spring: The Female Factor

Are the Arab uprisings a boon for women’s rights? Though they've helped topple regimes across the Arab world, women now must struggle for a role in the new system of power.

Isabelle Mandraud

From Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen and even Libya, women have been right in the middle of the "Arab Spring" revolutions. Lawyers, bloggers and mothers, with or without a veil, have taken to the streets in their masses to challenge authoritarian regimes.

Some of these women have turned into icons of the movement, like Salwa Bugaighis, a 44-year-old lawyer and human rights activist who joined the Libyan National Transitional Council, and Egypt's 25-year-old Mona Seif and 24-year-old Gigi Ibrahim, with their tweets of events on Tahrir square.

In Tunisia, it was a 23-year-old woman, Maha Issaoui, leader of the Karama, or dignity, group, who first posted videos on Facebook of protests in Sidi Bouzid that eventually helped lead to the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. On April 20, during French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe's visit to Tunis, Issaoui presented her plan to develop microcredit loans to help the unemployed youth.

Benghazi: active young women

"For boys and girls, freedom tastes the same, but it is even better for us!" says Aiea Buzgheiba, 18-year-old co-founder of Mokhtar's Nieces, a Benghazi group named after the hero of the struggle against the Italian colonial rulers. "We want to show the role women played in this revolution, and will continue playing," says Fatma Mohamed, who is 19. Boys repaint the group's offices. They bring water to the girls during protests. They are serving women, going against century-old traditions. In Benghazi, the hotbed of dissent, young women took over when the men left to fight Gaddafi's forces. They are creating associations, organizing protests, and writing blogs.

In Egypt, the end of the fairy tale

But things don't always turn out well. In Egypt, the post-revolution era is definitely male-dominated. Women who were at the forefront of the Tahrir square uprising, a symbol of equality between sexes, now barely have a say in the transition toward parliamentary elections in September. Out of the 27 ministers in Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's government, only one is a woman. And as for the governors, who also number 27, not one is female, despite a recent reshuffle in answer to street protests.

This imbalance is also true for the committee in charge of writing amendments to the Mubarak-era constitution. "Women participated massively in the revolution, but it didn't have any immediate impact on their place in society," says Dina Gamil, a left-wing activist. "The only positive aspect is that they experienced protests, and they now know their strength. I think they'll get into politics. If that's the case, new parties will have to take their rights into account."

For Egyptian women, the fairy tale came to an end on a symbolic day, March 8, international women's day. The march organized for women on Tahrir square came face to face with a group of counter-protesters, mostly Salafists chanting: "The people want to get rid of women", a play on the main revolution slogan "The people want to get rid of the regime." In the crowd several women were hurt despite being protected by men.

In Tunisia, mixed electoral ballots

In Tunisia, where a woman's place in society remains the most enviable of the Arab world, the transition period is still dominated by men. Only two ministers are women, for health and women's affairs, out of 23 members of the provisional transitional government led by Cid Beji Essebsi. Their role in party leadership is also minimal. Among the 51 party leaders, there's only one woman: Maya Jribi, a biologist and President of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

"It is true for the transition period, but it won't be once the Constitutional Assembly is elected," says Sanaa Ben Achour, President of the Tunisian Democratic Women's Association (ATFD) who will run in the coming elections. The High Office for Revolution Goals, created to prepare the July 24 Constitutional elections, voted for gender equality on ballots, a first in the Arab world.

But many are worried by the growing influence of Islamists, even though the main party, Ennahda, which was banned under Ben Ali, approved mixed ballots and supports "gender equality" in public. "It's hard for women right now. Every day I'm afraid the Islamists will impose wearing the veil," sighs Maha Issaoui. On April 1, the Tunisian government allowed the veil on ID pictures and for the first time, under the pressure of minority Salafist groups, women wearing the niqab came out in Tunis' medina.

In reaction, a Women's Manifesto was published on April 20. Signed by the Tunisian Women's Association for Research and Development, the Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité and the women's chapter of the Tunisian Human Rights League, the manifesto calls out against: "voices that are threatening women's rights because of religious or cultural factors." In Tunisia, before fighting for new rights, women have to fight to keep those they already have.

For Esraa Abdel Fattah, one of the Egyptian revolution leaders, changing mentalities will take some time. She says: "First, we'll have to fight for new parties to include women's demands in their programs. Then we'll have to mobilize the media and NGOs." Sina Gamil agrees: "People have been conditioned intellectually, psychologically and religiously to discriminate against women. To change this will be a lot harder than getting rid of Mubarak."

In Yemen, old traditions die hard.

As for Yemeni women, they still feel the weight of tribal practices, poverty and religious traditions. A law to protect children against forced marriages has been in the works for more than a year. In this debate, women are split between the traditionalists and the modernists. The Constitution doesn't have any discriminating clause against women, but they are discriminated against by customary law and by their limited access to education, which itself also hinders many from knowing their rights.

The important role women are playing in the "revolution" taking place in Sanaa is a surprise to many. And this could suddenly undermine traditions that go back centuries -- just like in the rest of the Arab world.

-with reporting by Benjamin Barthe/Egypt, Béatrice Gurrey/Libya and François-Xavier Trégan/Yemen

Photo - Al Jazeera

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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