Soueif: “The revolution was not fought along gender lines”

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Picture by Hossam el-Hamalawy: Ahdaf Soueif in Tahrir Square

Just a few lines on a really interesting talk last night from Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian writer who was in Cairo at the time of the recent protests, writing for the Guardian and participating in the revolution there.

Interesting for itself, as she is a truly inspirational woman and fascinating to hear talk generally, the event was also an insight into the role of women in Egyptian protests. Asked about the role of women, she was keen to stress that the protest was not seen in gender terms, and that the country’s women were there, participating, taking an active role in the political action.

“Every single type of woman was there in Tahrir Square. People need to know that the protestors in Egypt were not seeing this on gender terms,” Soueif insisted. And this article supports that ideology – women were being pragmatic, Egyptian, citizens all facing the same oppression.

There are, she admitted, gender challenges ahead. Women in Egypt feel largely patronised by plans to assign a certain number of seats in the new parliament to women, and there are issues around the number of women in the work force that need to be addressed as the new state forms – and some concerns about any extremist party that might rise to power in the current uncertainty. Unquiet has also begun to rumble around the fact that there are no women at all in the Constitutional Drafting Committee   – and rightly so. This is a very comprehensive post that works through the constitution and the new amendments, and what they mean for women, and is well worth a read to get to grips with the changes.

So it was a rare opportunity to hear a powerful voice speak out so passionately about her country, and conclude that yes, there are challenge ahead for the country – but that women will be a part of them, want to be a key part of them, and won’t forget their part in the revolution.

“Things are good in Egypt,” she said. “Things are great and can only get better as far as women are concerned.”

And her conclusion was particularly interesting. She finished by saying that the country was facing the question: “How do the people change policy?” And this is indeed the challenge now facing Egypt – to make all the people united and represented by the new state, without discrimination on terms of race, education or gender.

Libyan reforms need to accelerate women’s rights to succeed

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Protests in Libya

As political unrest and media focus shifts to Libya, I hope the current protests and calls for political reform also form a basis to improve women’s freedoms in the country. Following the detention of an outspoken government critic, violent protests have left many dead and injured – a very rare show of aggression in a normally quiet country. A newspaper connected to one of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi’s sons showed the police station in al-Bayda on fire. The newspaper’s website has since been closed down. In a media environment like that, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. There are reports of killings, there are reports of government forces opening fire on protestors.

As the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, Colonel Gadaffi has his influence in every aspect of Libyan life and government. And, since he came to power, some of the changes in the country have been positive – he even appointed female bodyguards as a sign of the changing world. The women’s lib movement came fairly late to Libya, with the movement really taking off a few years ago – this is a great story about the first female pilot in the country, for example.  And female teachers are not allowed to teach with their faces entirely covered.

But still, only 22% of the workforce are women, and the male relatives of women still have a massive influence over women’s choices in life.  Sexual harrasment can be a problem frequently experienced by women in the country – see this post on one woman’s experience.

Libya has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but has ominously filed formal reservations to exempt itself from having to comply with several provisions – which rather defeats the point of signing up at all.

Women’s organisations need to be involved in the decisons made about governing the country in the future, whether that involves a new leader or not. There are some good laws in place – the country’s leaders need to see them through into practice to give Libyan women the equality they have been edging towards.

Faces of women in the Egyptian protests

January 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

These brilliant pictures are being compiled together on Facebook by Leil-Zahra Mortada in Spain. Have a look as women stand up equally with their male countrymen, and make their feelings clear through protests, slogans, and chants.

Any revolution can only be built on a solid basis if it involves all corners of the country, considering all of the people in it. While most of the crowd shots on our televisions  seem to be made up largely of men, it’s inspiring to see women central in the protests, and these people make me feel humble and proud. Take the time to have a look at these brave women.

Click here to see all the photos – they are constantly being updated and added to

Egypt bans sex education – and women are the losers

November 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

As criticism pours on the news that sex education has been banned from Egyptian schools, Egyptian women in particular, face a double impact of the fallout from this bad news.

Ordering schools to stop teaching male and female anatomy, STDs and reproductive biological facts will leave severe gaps in the younger generations knowledge.

Women will suffer as being less equipped with reliable, factual knowledge to protect themselves. Information about pregnancy will be less widely available, as will teaching the skills to prevent STDs or to know when something is wrong with your health. It pushes these subjects firmly back into the taboo world of rumour and shame.

Secondly, men will also be far more poorly educated in these matters and more likely to spread disease, make poor sexual choices and even commit sex crimes. And this inevitably has yet another negative impact on the country’s women. Egypt already has a big problem with sexual discrimination and harassment. One young woman told the BBC in a report on the country last year ; “We are almost not living. If you are always at risk of being sexually harassed everywhere, what kind of a life is this?”

Banning sex education is a massive leap backwards for men and women to form healthy, safe, equal relationships. The ludicrous new curriculum has even removed teaching on pollination and fertilisation and anatomical illustrations of the male and female reproductive systems, and will affect students aged between 12 and 17. In a country where a growing majority of Egypt’s population is scraping by on less than $100 a month, information about population growth is important.

It’s the most populous country in the Arab world – but it’s poor. There are few laws to protect the equal rights of women – women are barred as serving as judges, for example, even those who are fully qualified. Only three women serve in the 27-seat cabinet.

“Definitely there will be social and health consequences,” says Dr. Amal Abdel Hadi, an outspoken advocate of reproductive health rights. “There will be more misconceptions about sex, marital disharmony and sexual harassment… and the prevalence of STDs will increase.”

A public awareness study of HIV/AIDS conducted in 2008 revealed that less than 2% of women among the poorest fifth of Egyptians, and about 16% among the richest, knew the basic facts of the disease.

These figures are terrifying. And it fits worryingly well into the context of Arab countries where only five have included reproductive health in the public school curriculum. And that doesn’t even mean its being actively taught.

With a rich wealth of internet at their fingertips, young men and women will certainly find plenty of other sources ready to inflict information about sex – namely their peers, religious extremists, forums, pornography. Wouldn’t it be better, safer and more productive just to teach them some facts?

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