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.

Ukraine: Protestors strip to raise awareness of women’s rights – but at what price?

November 18, 2010 § Leave a comment


A Femen protestor

It’s hard to know what to make of the Ukrainian protestors who strip to the waist to raise awareness of women’s rights . Femen is the groups name, and they perform topless protests to campaign on women’s rights.

As Alexandra Shevchenko, a 22-year-old economics student, puts it: “We started out being dressed but we found nobody took any notice. I’m a big fan of taking off our clothes.

“It’s how we get attention for our views.”

The group of 300 regular protestors also boasts an online support group of thousands. And they have some very serious points to make.

Their campaign – to improve the role of women in the male-dominated Ukraine – include protests at the visit from Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, disrupting an Iranian exhibition to protest at the treatment of women in Iran, and targeting sex tourism.

They have valid, serious, important points to make, and they are intelligent deteremined women. So why make themselves into a figure of fun, of cheeky speculation, and of the wrong sort of male attention?

On one hand I applaud them, and would say they are right to raise awareness for the issues any way they can. Take the steps needed to get more people involved and try and improve lives.

But. On the other hand.

How will they be taken seriously if their breasts are what they use to gain attention? It’s surely a contradiction in terms to complain about being demeaned in society but to counter it by demeaning yourself. It’s a tabloid editor’s dream, guaranteeing pictures of bare breasts in the media – but it’s ok, because it’s for a serious cause – and opening the movement up to a serious of pun-based headlines. Think along the lines of “Busted!” on a red-top paper with a pair of boobs flashing up from the page, and any serious political meaning is lost.

The police reportedly “once laughed off Femen’s activities as cheeky but harmless”. Now they are becoming more aggressive. More aggression from the police does not equal being taken seriously.

I can’t see this movement will really help to bring about substantial, long-term, thoughtful change to gender relations in the former Soviet state, and there is something a little chilling about the words of 20-year-old Inna, a journalism student, when she says: “It’s all we’ve got, our bodies. “

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