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Friday, March 18, 2011

Female leaders of 2011 democratic uprisings

Arab Awakening driven by brilliant, insightful, decisive women

Not to lessen the crucial contributions of revolutionary martyrs Khaled Said and Mohamed Bouazizi and organizers such as Google exec Wael Ghonim, one must still revel in the joyful and forceful inclusion of women in the North African and Middle East democracy movements. In many regions, ladies are the leaders in the drive for equality, justice, human rights and an open, fair society.

Young Arab Ladies leading the way

Here are some of the women who have figured prominently in North Africa and Mideast democratic uprisings and revolutions in recent months:

Asma'a Mahfouz

Isra’a Abdel Fattah

Nawwara Nagm

Gigi Ibrahim

Mona Eltahawy

Tawakul Karaman

Marwa Sharafeldin

Maryam Rajavi

Lina ben Mhenni

Maryam al Khawaja

Amal Abdel Hadi

Women in the Arab Revolution video: Interviews with Lina ben Mhenni, Maryam al Khawaja, Amal Abdel Hadi featuring Lina ben Mhenni, Tunisian blogger and activist, Maryam al Khawaja, Head of Foreign Relations Office of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and Amal Abdel Hadi, Feminist, Human Rights activist, founding member of New Woman Foundation.

Click to watch part two of the interview video Arab Women in the Revolution .

April 6th Movement for Youth wikipedia page

The April 6 Youth Movement began as an Egyptian Facebook group founded by Isra’a Abdel Fattah, 29, and Ahmed Maher, 30, in spring 2008 to support the April 6 workers strike in el-Mahalla el-Kobra, an industrial town along the Nile Delta.

Isra’a Abdel Fattah, Human Resources specialist and co-leader of Egypt's Revolution

On January 18th 2011 a video that changed the world was uploaded by Asma'a Mahfouz, for in it the young Egyptian urged her countrymen to take to the streets to protest the injustice. Take a look:

Asma’a Mahfouz, 26, a petite Business Administration graduate, emerged as another prominent figure from the April 6 Youth Movement to play a major role in the #Jan25 Jasmine Revolution in Egypt. By her account she did not have any political training or ideology before joining the group in March 2008. With her two colleagues she immediately helped set up the Facebook page urging Egyptians to support and join the strikes.

Asma'a Mahfouz, spokesperson for Egypt's April 6th Youth Movement

More significantly, Mahfouz played a critical role in the mobilization efforts for the current popular revolution. She posted passionate daily online videos imploring her countrymen and women to participate in the protests. In a recent interview, she elucidated her role when she stated, “I was printing and distributing leaflets in popular areas, and calling for citizens to participate. In those areas, I also talked to young people about their rights, and the need for their participation.”

She continued, “At the time when many people were setting themselves on fire, I went into Tahrir Square with several members of the movement, and we tried a spontaneous demonstration to protest against the recurrence of these incidents. However, the security forces prevented us and removed us from the Square. This prompted me to film a video clip, featuring my voice and image, calling for a protest.”

“I said that on the 25th of January, I would be an Egyptian girl defending her dignity and her rights. I broadcasted the video on the Internet, via Facebook, and was surprised by its unprecedented distribution over websites and mobile phones. Subsequently, I made four further videos prior to the date of the protest,” she added.

Wael Ghonim gets a hug from the mother of Khaled Said:

Nawwara Nagm, 37, revolutionary spokesperson, and daughter of esteemed poet Ahmad Fuad Nagm, 81, and her mother, female journalist Safinaz Kazem.

One of the most articulate voices of Egypt’s revolution is thirty-seven year old Nawwara Nagm. Since her graduation as an English literature major, she has been a well-known political activist as well as a severe critic of Mubarak’s regime working as a journalist and blogger for opposition newspapers. In 1995 she was first arrested and sent to prison at the age of twenty-two because she protested the inclusion of Israel in Cairo’s annual Book Fair.

Lina ben Mhenni, Tunisia

Lina Ben Mhenni is a 22 year-old Tunisian activist who runs the blog ‘A Tunisian Girl.’ She works as a teacher's assistant and translator at Tunis University.

Ben Mhenni’s blog, which was censored under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule, was one of the most revealing and scathing criticisms of Tunisian society. In her blog, she discussed such issues as women’s rights and press freedom. During the protests in Tunisia, Ben Mhenni visited local hospitals and took pictures of those injured or killed by the police. The images served as proof of the regime’s brutality, and she rose to become one of the most prominent bloggers in the Arab world.

Amal Abdel Hadi, Egypt

Interview with Amal Abdel Hadi, from fidh.org

In what ways were women involved in the protests in Egypt?

Women were involved in every aspect of this revolution: in confrontations on the front line, in confrontations with the security forces, organising, writing slogans, shouting, sleeping in Tahrir Square during the sit-ins... Some women were there throughout the 18 days of the protests.

Women are also among the martyrs of this movement. Women were killed by the security forces. Some women were also arrested and detained.

The majority of the women involved were young women, but there were women of all ages and all walks of life. For example housewives who had never been involved in this type of action before, came to protest with their children, activists from all the political movements, from the Muslim brotherhood to communists, participated in the demonstrations.

Members of our organisation were active in the protests, as individuals, we didn’t go to the demonstrations as the “New Woman Foundation”. But when we spoke with people, they knew we were from NWF. I was in Tahrir Square every day and I slept in the square for several nights.

Women and men were comrades in the protests. This was an incredible, incredible time in Egypt. Millions of people were gathered in the same place. And women were not afraid. We witnessed no instances of sexual harassment for example. There was a sense of complete respect, complete support, and complete solidarity towards the women. Women, particularly the younger ones, slept for days in the square.

Were there any chants or demands specifically relating to women’s rights during the protests?

No, there was nothing specific to any group, there were only the demands of the revolution. Everybody was supporting the same cause: an end to the regime, the overthrow of Mubarak and the establishment of a civil government. This is important. When someone shouted a slogan which was too political or too religious for example, everyone would chant “one hand, one hand”, and people returned to chanting the general slogans on which everyone agreed.

Was there media coverage of women’s participation in the protests?

The media showed women, but they interviewed men more often than women. The majority of those who were invited on talk shows were men.

How are women participating in the political transition?

Women are being ignored! For example, the Constitutional Committee, which was created to revise some of the articles of the Constitution, doesn’t have a single woman member.

But we are mobilising. Several groups issued a statement denouncing the absence of women on the Committee. A Coalition of 12-14 feminist organisations has been formed, which has stressed that women must be represented in every aspect of the process and in all the decision making bodies that are being established.

There has also been a call on Facebook for a demonstration of a million women and men on 8 March, International Women’s Day.

What are your main demands for the transition government?

A new government! A democratic government, that has integrity and independence, not the current transition government which is a “patchwork government”. We are calling for a civil presidential council to be established immediately, which should form a civil government and a constitutional committee, responsible for drafting a new constitution. We need a new constitution!

The constitutional committee should be composed of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Women and young people must be represented on the committee. Women and young people were the driving force behind this revolution.

We are calling for equal and fair representation of women and young people in all representative bodies, from the local committees and councils to the national parliament.

We are calling for freedom of expression, starting with the freedom to form political parties, independent syndicates, unions, NGOs, and civil society organisations.

We are calling for those involved in the repression of demonstrations and the killings to be tried. We want those responsible for terrorizing our citizens, for opening the prisons, and for all the crimes conducted during the first 18 days of the revolution to be tried. We want a transparent trial for all those involved in corruption in Egypt. We want all the symbols of the regime, not just Mubarak or his assistants, but all of those who have been involved in the corruption to be tried.

We are calling for the freezing of the assets of Mubarak and all other symbols of the regime. We are pushing the government to take action in this respect.

We are calling for the liberation of all protesters who have been arbitrarily arrested. Arrests by the military police are still taking place today and that needs to end.

We are calling for all those responsible for cutting off the internet, telephone and media communications to stand trial. We call for those, in particular in Egyptian television, who tried to distort and conceal information from the Egyptian people, to be held to account.

The military council [currently running the country] is calling for parliamentary and presidential elections and for the Constitution to be amended within 6 months. This is a real problem because we fear that those responsible for organising elections and reforming the constitution will be from the main existing parties: the National Democratic Party, which is the party of the previous regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood. We don’t want this. We want long term change.

We want a deeper reflection on the new Constitution and what we want for a new Egypt, and this will take a while. It is not to be rushed. Under the current laws, we cannot even form new political parties. We don’t want a new government that is an extension of the previous regime!

Are there groups other than women’s associations supporting demands for the protection of women’s rights ?

Actually, no other groups raise the issues of women’s rights on their own, but when we discuss them they agree with us. When we met, for example, with the military council, no one raised these demands, but no one actually raised any demands relating to any particular political group. Until now, everything has been focused on the transition, because we feel that nothing is moving.

Could you tell us what you think these recent developments will mean for women’s rights? What are your hopes and fears in this regard?

My hopes are that if we really work, if we can really use this opportunity, the situation of women in Egypt will generally get a better. I think there are possibilities, real possibilities, that we can achieve a modern civil government and a parliamentary democracy.

If we move towards this and we move towards greater respect for freedom of association, including for professional and workers unions and NGOs, then this should allow women to participate more effectively in all areas of public life and will provide them with the opportunity to give their perspectives on health, the economy, the environment, working conditions, etc. We feel this change of atmosphere will provide us with better forums for advocating our for our rights.

Previous claims that women’s voices should not be heard, all of this has been smashed during the revolution, smashed! Because women were there, with their beautiful voices, shouting against the regime. Women were there, sleeping on the ground in the streets, and this was appreciated by everyone.

But I think the desire to speed the process along and to rush things may be to the detriment of women. There is a risk we could end up with political parties or parliamentarians who are not really concerned about women and who might even be against women’s rights. That is why we are calling for the process to take time.

Finally, could you give us your perspective on the ongoing events in the rest of the region and their potential implications for women’s rights?

The Tunisians did a marvelous thing in starting this movement and Egyptians had in important impact in proving that it can happen. Most Arab countries are very autocratic and very oppressive. I think that this is a real beginning of a process of deconstruction and of rebuilding, particularly with the youth using the internet. It’s incredible, it is incredible! It is an era of change.

Nothing is going to go back... It is a marvelous feeling, that you are actually witnessing the making of history. And I am glad that I lived to experience that feeling.

And the young people are really determined, they are really mature! They are resisting their own “iconisation”, and they are trying to act, they may lack some experience but they will learn! They are fast learners and I am glad that they have learned actually out of the usual circles, outside of political parties. They have their creativity and their resilience and that is very important. I think that young people are generally more in favour of real democracy, more willing to change and have greater respect for women.

Amal Abdel Hadi interview conducted by Shawna Carroll - FIDH

The Mother of Yemen's Revolution - Tawakul Karaman

Tawakel Karman, also Tawakul, (Arabic: توكل كرمان‎), is a Yemeni politician who is a senior member of Al-Islah and a human rights activist who heads the group Women Journalists Without Chains that she created in 2005.

Tawakul Karman created the human rights group Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) in 2005 for promoting human rights, "particularly freedom of opinion and expression, and democratic rights".

Karman said that she has received "threats and temptations" from the authorities by telephone and letter because of her refusal to accept the Ministry of Information rejection of WJWC's application to legally create a newspaper and a radio station. From 2007 to 2010, Karman regularly led demonstrations and sit-ins in Freedom Square in Sana'a in front of the Cabinet.

During the ongoing 2011 Yemeni protests Tawakel Karman organised student rallies in Sana'a to protest against Ali Abdullah Saleh and his government. She was arrested once, amid complaints her husband did not know her whereabouts, however she was released on parole on 24 January. She then led another protest on 29 January where she called for a "day of rage" on 3 February similar to that of the 2011 Egyptian protests that were in turn inspired by the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising. On 17 March, she was re-arrested amidst ongoing protests.

Maryam al Khawaja, Bahrain

Maryam al Khawaja being interviewed about discrimination against Shia people in Bahrain:

Maryam al Khawaja, Bahrain Center for Human Rights, speaking at a London press conference last September, 2010:

I actually just flew into London last night. I am here representing the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. I want to talk about my personal experience having just come from Bahrain.

People in Bahrain, particularly human rights activists live in constant fear. Around 3.30am you will find that most activists are awake as they are waiting to see if its their turn to get arrested. When you are in the car you make sure you lock the car doors because if they come for you you will at least have time to make a final phone call. So there is a constant situation of fear that people are living under.

I have been working on the cases of the detainees and of course I also want to talk about the kidnappings. The kidnappings differ from the arrests. What happens is that someone will get picked up in the street by the security forces. They will disappear for two or three days and then they will be thrown on the curb somewhere after being abused and beaten.

I myself interviewed one of the victims of these kidnappings. He was even a Saudi national, he was not even a Bahraini. He was walking towards his car from a coffee shop and he was taken, blindfolded for the whole two days that he was kept. He was beaten severely, they kept threatening him with sexual abuse and made him listen to cries of other people being tortured and supposedly sexually abused as well. And he was thrown half naked in the street.

Part of the procedure, what they do is that they will take a person's clothes off completely, take pictures of him completely naked and threaten to publish these pictures all over the country.

As for the defendants that are being kept. According to Bahraini law people have to be charged with a crime or released. And you are also innocent until proven guilty. But according to the state security law or the counter terrorism law which was released in 2006 they can also keep someone incommunicado for 15 days before presenting them before the public prosecution. This gives way to torture and ill-treatment. After they are presented at the public prosecution which has been the case with the detainees now, they are allowed to extend that detention by another sixty days, which puts them right back in the hands of the torturers. This is exactly what his happening with the detainees today.

After the detainees went to the public prosecution and made all the complaints of torture and mistreatment they were actually placed right back to where they come from for another 60 days. And we fear for their lives, we fear for their well-being, they are not allowed to see any physicians or doctors.

According to different human rights organisations the government has to throw out any forced information for indictment in court. But in the public prosecution office when a detainee makes a statement he tries to tell the attorney general of the torture they will not allow that to be recorded in the papers describing what transpired during the meeting This is the opposite of what is supposed to happen. They are not even writing down the complaints of torture.

The charges that have been filed against these detainees, especially the one concerning over throwing the government, can lead to execution if they are convicted. There is also fear for the lives of these detainees and what might happen to them if they are convicted of these charges.

On August 26th there was an order issued by the public prosecutor which comes after the defamation campaign in the local media. You have the local media are writing articles about all these defendants who haven't even been to court. They are talking about how they are already criminals, or how they are already terrorists and how they are funding all the terrorist activities in Bahrain.

And the moment these so called terrorists are taken to the public prosecution office and make complaints about torture a gagging order is issued saying that no one is allowed to publish anything about the topic. The people who are working for human rights have access about information about what is happening to these detainees. But as soon as they have access to this information the gagging order is issued.

Of course we consider these detainees to be prisoners of conscience and political prisoners. We have reason to believe that a lot of them are being subjected to sexual assault. Of course these are not documented because the detainees have asked that this is not documented for personal reason. But we have reason to believe that most of them are being subjected to sexual assaults.

And there are almost daily statements issued by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights on our website. You are more than welcome to visit our website to get more information. We know that what we are is based on facts. There is no evidence to convict the defendants. We invite you all to visit Bahrain and see what is happening first had. Thank you very much.

Maryam Rajavi, Iran

Though Iranians speak Farsi not Arabic and they view themselves as Persian rather than Arab, nobody doubts that events in Egypt and the Middle East are impacting Shi'ite Iran. There are many female leaders in the Green Movement, and Maryam Rajavi (whose husband is also a prominent opposition leader) may be the most crucial of them all.

Marwa Sharafeldin, Oxford University

- B.A. Political Science, International Law Specialization, American University in Cairo, 1998 (High Honors).

- MSc. Development Management, London School of Economics, 2002 (Merit).

- MSt. Socio-Legal Centre, Law Faculty, Oxford University, 2008.

Research Interests

- Muslim Family Law reform

- Gender and Islamic law

- Feminism in the Middle East

- Civil Society

- International human rights law


Marwa is currently reading for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Law in the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies. She researches Egyptian NGOs’ efforts to reform the Muslim family law using both Islamic law and international human rights law at one and the same time. Marwa looks into the process of interaction and re-interpretation that takes place when these two bodies of law come into contact in NGOs’ work. She investigates how this process transforms the understanding and appropriation of certain elements in both Islamic law and international human rights law which eventually creates breakthroughs, compromises and silences in NGOs’ family law reform efforts.

Before and during her time in Oxford, Marwa has been the co-founder of several individual NGOs in Egypt, as well as the Network for Women’s Rights Organizations in Egypt and the Young Arab Feminist Network. She also works with the international Musawah movement for Muslim family law reform, and is active on issues related to women and gender in the Middle East.

The Media

Gigi Ibrahim - American University of Cairo student journalist

One of the most crucial citizen reporters in Cairo was 24-year-old Gigi Ibrahim.

Armed with little more than her Blackberry and a webcam, Ibrahim - who spent her high school years in California and recently earned a political science degree from the American University in Cairo - is on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Vimeo. She tweets and posts, shoots stills and video, all in an effort to chronicle the unrest.

In a Skype interview with The New York Times, Ibrahim said her role "is to be part of this wave of change. I tweet a lot while at the protests; I tell everybody the security situation, how many people are at protests. I'm trying to spread accurate information and paint a picture at the ground for people who aren't here, via Twitter and Facebook."

Ibrahim's smartphone lacks an Arabic keybord, but she said "a lot of my followers are from outside of Egypt. I want to try to use a language most everyone would understand. It's important for me to be a citizen journalist, because with our press here... not everything gets broadcast."

Mona Eltahawy -Dream TV interview with Wael Ghonim galvanized a nation

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning columnist and a public speaker. Born in Egypt and now based in New York, she regularly published opinion pieces in the Washington Post, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Jerusalem Report, Qatar’s Al Arab newspaper, and beyond. She has won the Samir Kassir Prize and the Anna Lindh Journalism Award for her reporting.

Mona, when you were on Bill Maher during the revolution, you really set him straight. FYI, he knows dick-all about the Middle East yet is the first to criticize any attempts to improve things there. When he was quoting those absurd statistics about fundamentalist attitudes, you were so "spot on" to point out those ideas are the products of the oppression the people lived under. Best of all was your shout out to Mubarak; when you exclaimed "Fuck YOU!" I nearly fell off my chair with glee!

Sources include: Wikipedia.org, aljazeera.net, france24.com, cyberdissidents.org, fidh.org,

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