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+972 Person of the Year: Woman activist of the Arab world

From Bahrain to Tunisia, at demonstrations, in interviews and in their own writing, they repeat, “We will not be quiet.” In their refusal to view the rights of women as a cause separate from civil rights, human rights and pro-democracy activism, female Arab protestors have taken feminism to a new level.

By Lisa Goldman

An Egyptian woman at a December protest in Cairo (photo: Mosa'ab Elshamy)

During the January 25 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, two women from vastly different backgrounds worked side-by-side at Tahrir Square, organizing the distribution of donated food and medical supplies. One was a secular, feminist attorney who wears slim jeans and has her hair done at one of Cairo’s most expensive salons. The other was an Islamist who covers her face with a niqab and drapes her body in a black abaya. When they were not at the square, they spoke about organizational issues on the phone. They were in constant contact for 18 days, both fully committed to the revolution. “But,” said the secular attorney, over cappuccinos and biscotti at a trendy Cairo café, “We were never alone together in a private place, so I have never seen her face. I worked with this woman day and night for nearly three weeks. She is one of the toughest, smartest people I know. But I have no idea what she looks like.”

The Arab Uprising has upended many popular clichés about the Middle East. Over the past year we have seen pious Muslims demonstrating for a secular democracy. We have seen Christian protestors at Tahrir Square protecting Muslims as they pray. And we have seen Arab women – veiled and unveiled, Islamists and secular liberals – demonstrating side-by-side at the front lines of the anti-regime protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine. Many of these women have become the de facto faces and spokespeople for their revolutions – addressing television cameras, giving interviews and writing articles for the international media. They have been at the front lines of violent confrontations between protestors and riot police. Their confidence and bravery are all the more extraordinary given the obstacles women face in the socially conservative Middle East.

During the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising in Egypt, women in Tahrir Square remarked that they had never experienced an atmosphere so free of sexual harassment. But it turned out that this was just a brief idyll, perhaps limited to the bubble of revolutionary Tahrir Square. It ended the day Hosni Mubarak resigned, with the widely covered sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan. Since then, Egyptian women have suffered sexual violence at the hands of both men in uniform and thugs in civilian clothes, in addition to the harassment – insults and groping – that has for years been commonplace in public spaces.

In November, Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist, was viciously beaten and sexually assaulted by paramilitary riot police near Tahrir Square. In interviews on that experience, she pointed out that her ordeal was not unique – that she had escaped relatively unscathed compared to hundreds of other Egyptian women, thanks in large part to her media prominence and US citizenship. Ms. Eltahawy accused the Egyptian military junta of using sexual assault as a tactic to suppress dissent, trying to deter women by humiliating them as well as beating them. As if to prove that point, less than one month after Ms. Eltahawy went public with the details of her experience, the world was outraged to see a video showing Egyptian paramilitary police dragging a veiled women along a Cairo street near Tahrir Square, kicking her repeatedly in the head, beating her with riot sticks, stripping her to her underwear and stomping on her breastbone.

That incident was the catalyst for a march of thousands of Egyptian women in downtown Cairo. Waving photos of the woman who was stripped and beaten, they chanted slogans to express their anger at the military regime’s violence against female protestors. Observers commented that the morale at that march was high, with the female marchers ringed by supportive men, who formed a human protective chain. From Bahrain to Tunisia, at demonstrations, in interviews and in their own writing, they repeat, “We will not be quiet.” In their refusal to view the rights of women as a cause separate from civil rights, human rights and pro-democracy activism, female Arab protestors have taken feminism to a new level.

For its Person of the Year for 2011, +972 Magazine has chosen the Arab woman activist. For illustrative purposes, I have selected a few prominent activists, of the many, many more who we honor. The women mentioned in this article include a secular Tunisian feminist academic and a veiled Yemeni Islamist journalist. Both are crusaders for human rights and democracy; both were nominated for the Nobel Peace Price; one of them won. I also highlight two prominent Palestinian women – one a citizen of Israel and the other a grassroots activist from a small West Bank village. From Egypt, two women who refused to back down after they were beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted; one is a secular, cosmopolitan journalist and the other a veiled supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood from a small town in southern Egypt. Both are outspoken, articulate and independent. These women are united in their refusal to be cowed, their unshakeable self-confidence and their insistence on continuing their activism.

 

Yemen

Tawakkol Karman accepting the Nobel Peace Prize (photo: Leif Riksheim/Flickr)

Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, 32, shares the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with two Liberian women “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Tawakkol Karman is a feminist and a journalist, a married mother of three who founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005. A prominent human rights activist for years, she has been at the forefront of the Yemeni Arab Uprising, leading rallies against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ms. Karman is a member of a conservative Islamist party, but she also removed her niqab, or face veil, in 2005 as a means of demonstrating that it is not mandated by Islam. “Women have been marginalized for too long,” she said.

Listen to Democracy Now! interview Tawakkol Karman during a visit to New York in October 2011.

 

Egypt

Asmaa Mahfouz (photo: European Parliament/Flickr)

One week before the January 25 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz uploaded a video to her Facebook page.  The 26-year-old woman, who became one of five recipients of the 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, exhorted fellow Egyptians to come to the streets on January 25 “for freedom, justice, honor and human dignity.” She added: “Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on 25 January.”

The video went viral, and she is widely credited for inspiring thousands to join the demonstrations that first day of the Egyptian uprising. Ms. Mahfouz is a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which began organizing against the Mubarak regime in April 2008. She continues to be active politically, running for parliament in this month’s first post-Mubarak elections, and recently visited the Occupy Wall Street protestors in Zuccotti Park. Asked what advice she had for women, she answered, “You have to believe in yourself.”

Mona Eltahawy (photo: Dirk Eusterbrock)

From her home base in New York City, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy gained fame in the United States as she raced from interview to interview, speaking passionately and intelligently on behalf of the Egyptian revolution from the first day of demonstrations on January 25. In between interviews she tweeted incessantly, gaining a following that now numbers well over 100,000. In November 2011, during a visit to Cairo, she was at a demonstration near Tahrir Square when Egyptian paramilitary police attacked and beat her brutally. They assaulted her sexually, beat her over her entire body and broke her right hand and left arm. She was arrested and kept in detention, blindfolded and denied medical attention, for 12 hours. Her own phone had been lost during the beating, but once at the ministry of interior she borrowed someone else’s and managed to tweet “beaten arrested in interior ministry.” Thanks to her wide following, which includes many prominent journalists, Ms. Eltahawy’s tweet immediately went viral and helped catch the attention of State Department officials.

Released the following day, Ms. Eltahawy immediately tweeted about the details of the assault she suffered at the hands of Egyptian military police, even as she was taken to the hospital to have her arms X-rayed and put in casts. Despite the pain and trauma, she gave several television interviews and continues to speak and write about it as a means of highlighting the fact that tens of thousands of Egyptians have been beaten, killed and jailed under the rule of SCAF (the Supreme Council of Armed Forces), the military junta that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s resignation. She continues to advocate forcefully for SCAF’s immediate resignation, to be replaced by a civilian government.

Samira Ibrahim

On March 9, 2011, Samira Ibrahim was one of several female protestors who were dragged from a demonstration at Tahrir Square by soldiers who beat them, arrested them and then subjected them to forced so-called “virginity tests.” An army officer, who was not a physician, performed the so-called test – actually a sexual assault – in an open room, before many leering observers. In her description of the assault, Ms. Ibrahim says that when she tried to refuse to undress, one of the soldiers used a taser to administer electric shocks to her stomach until she submitted. “I know that to violate a woman in that way was considered rape,” she said in an interview. “I felt like I had been raped.” In a video interview, Ms. Ibrahim speaks about her background and her insistence on filing a police complaint: “If I drop these charges, what happened to me could happen to any woman in Egypt,” she asserts. The police, she says, have refused to respond to the death threats she has received on her mobile phone, so she has simply stopped answering. “I am not afraid,” she says.

Ms. Ibrahim, 25, is from a small town in southern Egypt, nine hours from Cairo by train. She traveled alone to Cairo, with the full support of her traditional, Muslim Brotherhood-aligned family, to file a complaint in civil court against the Egyptian military. Of all the women who were sexually assaulted in this fashion, she is the only one to file a complaint; she was also one of the first to speak out early against the Egyptian military, at a time when the army was still widely perceived as being on the side of the people and the revolution.  This speaks to her bravery – not only because so many activists and bloggers have been arrested, tried summarily in military courts, and sentenced to years in jail, but also because the loss of virginity carries an enormous stigma for women in her traditional society.

On December 27, Ms. Ibrahim was vindicated: The civil courts in Cairo stated that they believed her account of the army’s use of sexual assault as a tactic against female protestors. This is made more significant by the fact that many Egyptians did not believe her – particularly because the other women who were subjected to the so-called virginity test were too ashamed to press charges. The court also reminded the army that the use of sexual assault on female prisoners was illegal. In response one Egyptian woman  tweeted, “Did we really need a judge to rule that virginity tests were illegal?”

 

Tunisia

Lina Ben Mhenni (photo: David Sasaki/ Flickr)

Lina Ben Mhenni,  a 27 year-old cyber activist who blogs in French, English and Arabic under the name Tunisian Girl, was a human rights crusader well before the uprising began in her country. Once demonstrations against Ben Ali regime began, she started to travel around the country in order to record video, take photos and interview people. She became one of the most important reporters of the revolution, regularly interviewed and quoted by the international correspondents who belatedly recognized the importance of the demonstrations, which ultimately provided the spark for the Arab Uprisings that spread across the Middle East. Ms. Ben Mhenni was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year. She continues to speak out for civil rights in Tunisia; like many Egyptian activists, she asserts that the situation in Tunisia has not changed much with the fall of the old regime, and that the revolution is far from over. In this speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, she also reminds her audience that the role of social media should not be over-estimated.

 

Syria

Razan Ghazzawi (photo: Jillian C York/Flickr)

When human rights activist Razan Ghazzawi was arrested in early December, the first thing she did was alert her friends to shut down her Facebook page and take control of her Twitter account, lest they be used by Syrian security to incriminate others by association. Ms. Ghazzawi, 30, is a veteran activist who works for the NGO Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. She is passionate about Palestine, but contemptuous of pro-Palestinian activists who support the Syrian regime. In a conservative region, she is openly homosexual and vocal about LGBT issues. And in the fearful climate of Syria’s 9-month old uprising, during which thousands have been killed and tortured by the army and security forces, she blogs and tweets under her real name, campaigning for the release of political prisoners.

Ms. Ghazzawi was on her way to Jordan for a conference on press freedom in early December when she was detained at the border by Syrian officials, then arrested on a list of charges that included “weakening national sentiment” and carried a jail sentence of up to 15 years. Her strong online presence and wide network of connections assured an immediate, sustained online campaign for her release, which came two weeks later. Despite her arrest, Ms. Ghazzawi refuses to be silenced. She continues to campaign for the release of political prisoners.

 

Bahrain

Zainab Alkhawaja

Zainab Alkhawaja, 28, caught the world’s attention with her immense courage when she stood alone in front of soldiers firing tear gas and bullets at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout. She is the daughter, wife and sister-in-law of jailed opposition leaders. Her father is one of the leading human rights activists in the region, and her husband was recently sentenced to four years in jail for activism. Ms. Alkhawaja, who is the mother of a little girl,  tweets fearlessly under the username Angry Arabiya, documents demonstrations in real time and details the army’s violence toward unarmed civilian protestors. She has gone on a hunger strike to protest the brutal arrest of her father, she has written an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and she has suffered beatings and arrests.

Two weeks ago, an amateur video showing police dragging her away from a demonstration by force went viral. Ms. Alkhawaja was released from detention a few days later, after what she described laconically as a “difficult experience.” In a recent interview with the New York Times’ Robert Mackey, she explains lucidly that the alleged Sunni-Shia’a divide in Bahrain is actually a construct of the ruling Sunni minority regime that is sold to the international media. Sunni and Shia’a are in fact very integrated in Bahrain, she says, asserting that the struggle is not a sectarian one. Bahrainis, she explains, know this is a national – not sectarian – struggle. She points out that both Sunni and Shia’a anti-regime activists have been arrested and tortured. Her own husband, she says, has been tortured because of her activism. “But we are strong,” she says. “And I will not be quiet.”

 

Palestine and Israel

Nariman Tamimi (photo: ActiveStills)

Nariman Tamimi of Nabi Saleh is one of the main organizers of the unarmed anti-occupation demonstrations in her tiny West Bank village of 500 people. Trained as a medic, she also documents the human rights abuses committed by the Israeli army for the human rights NGO B’Tselem. Her husband, Bassem, also an anti-occupation activist, was arrested by the Israeli army in March 2011 and is in detention at Ofer Military Prison pending his trial, which has been delayed several times. A veteran activist, Bassem Tamimi has been arrested 11 times, although he has never been charged with any offense.

To make matters more stressful, there is a pending demolition order on their home. Ms. Tamimi, who is the mother of five children aged 5 to 14, has also been detained and released since her husband was jailed in March. Her cousin Mustafa was killed on December 11 when he was shot in the head with a tear gas canister fired by an Israeli military policeman at very short range. That same day, at the rally for international human rights day in Tel Aviv, attorney Nisreen Alyan read aloud a speech written by Ms. Tamimi.

With your help we can cross the bridge of optimism with our heads raised high. Your massive presence, believers in justice, democracy, equality and in all of the disappearing values will redeem us. You are free people in the world. Release us from the occupation and bring us freedom, justice and peace, for you and for us. Let there be peace for you and also for us.

The next week, armed with her video camera and her medic’s supplies, Nariman Tamimi again led the protestors at Nabi Saleh’s weekly demonstration against the occupation.

 

Rawia Aburabia (photo: ACRI)

Rawia Aburabia is one of only five female Bedouin attorneys in Israel and a leader in her community. She is a tireless advocate for the rights of Bedouin women and Bedouin in general in Israel. For her Master’s thesis, she wrote about the issue of polygamy in Bedouin society; she is now the leading expert on polygamy in Israel. Ms. Aburabia authors important articles and position papers, and organizes activism against the state’s continuing efforts to displace Bedouin from their traditional lands in the Negev desert; in a recent article for Haaretz newspaper, she described the state’s attitude toward its Bedouin citizens as follows:

When a Jewish Israeli wants to go and live in the Negev, it is called the development of the south, but when Bedouin already living there want to continue to live in the same place, it is considered an effort to “take over state lands.” When Jewish Israelis choose to live in a rural setting the government provides them with infrastructure adapted to the model of a kibbutz or moshav. When Bedouin want to lead a rural life, suddenly there are unrealistic criteria they must meet.

A woman from a deeply conservative society, and a Bedouin in a state that treats them as second class citizens at best, Ms. Aburabia has faced significant challenges in her life. She is supremely self-possessed, impressively accomplished and absolutely unwavering in her advocacy for the civil and human rights of the Bedouin in Israel.

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Read also:
+972 Magazine’s people of the Year 2011: Bloggers’ picks
+972 Magazine’s 10 most-read posts of 2011

+972 Magazine’s People of the Year 2010
+972 Magazine’s Person of the Year 2010: Abdullah Abu Rahmah

 

 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Oraynab Mohamad

      Thank you for your work. I look forward to the day where all Middle Easterners, regardless of their culture, nationality or religion, unite and live in peace – as it should be.

      Reply to Comment
    2. emet

      Lisa&these women make me think that there is still hope.
      Maximum respect for your efforts

      Reply to Comment
    3. Carl

      Lisa, you couldn’t have picked a more inspiring group of activists. Each one profiled would have been a strong candidate in her own right.

      Reply to Comment
    4. In Yemen, there are many prominent women leader in the Yemeni revolution, and I wonder you talked about Tawakol only in five lines !!!!

      Reply to Comment
    5. Danya

      Thanks for writing this, Lisa.

      Reply to Comment

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