In association with BBC Arabic
Friday 16th December 2011, Royal College of Surgeons, London
A Women’s Revolution
“A year ago I wasn’t an activist, I was just a mother” said Mervat Mhani, a co-founder of the Free Generation Movement in Libya. “Well, that’s what happens when you have a revolution!”
This has been a similar story for many women of the Arab Spring over the past year. The Arab Spring has been called a “women’s revolution”, but what is meant by that? Will things really change for women when the revolution is over? What can we hope for the women of the Arab Spring?
The past year has been an extremely tumultuous one for the Arab world. The uprisings across this corner of the globe were ignited by a young fruit seller in Tunisia, who killed himself by self-immolation in protest at the confiscation of his goods and harassment by the police. That single act by Mohamed Bouazizi turned him into a martyr and set alight other uprisings in the region.
A year after Bouazizi set himself on fire, Our Other Sisters attended an event organised by the Frontline Club and BBC Arabic to discuss the “Women of the Revolution.” The chair, Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum, told the audience that “women have been let down before in other revolutions, we want to hear from these women what they believe is achievable from the Arab Spring in regards to women.”
Like the countries in the Arab Spring, all three of the women on the panel, Libyan Mervat Mhani, Bahraini Maryam Alkhawaja and Iranian Sussan Tahmasebi have extensively different stories, but all share common goals, “we are all women fighting for human rights.”
A constant thorn in the side of these women is the portrayal of them in the western media and the stereotype that they are oppressed. “My headscarf does not make me oppressed. I choose it” says Maryam, “and I think you can tell I am not a woman who will go back in to the kitchen when all this is over, right?” The audience laugh. When looking at Maryam, it is hard to believe that she is just 24 years old. The daughter of a prominent human rights activist, she herself has carved a name for herself in her own right with her work for the Bahraini Human Rights Center.
Maryam possesses a steely determination that she articulates with absolute conviction in everything that she says. She is convinced that the Arab Spring will remain a women’s revolution, she says “When the men go home, the women will keep on fighting.”
All of the women contend that the West need to break down their stereotype of the Middle Eastern woman before we are able to understand what the Arab Spring means for women.
Sussan Thasemebi, who has been an Iranian women’s right activist for over 20 years, explained that in the West we get a warped sense of women in Iran, where 60% of women are university students and the average age for a woman to get married is 25.
“Women are very active in Iran’s social life, it is the policies that are oppressive against women and it is these that need changing.” Sussan’s campaign is to fight for a civil law where women’s rights are advocated. She explained that too many times in the past the outcome of uprisings have “thank you very much sister for your work, but now you must wait, we need to work out national policies, and we don’t want to upset the conservatives, your time will come. Our time is now!” she tells a captive audience.
Sussan’s point is sadly evident in the history of uprisings across the Middle East for women. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 actually saw some rights for women reversed and the role back on many policies. It is for this reason, all three are cautious to champion women’s rights to coincide in the redefining of human rights for the region. “Women in all these countries are fighting for human rights foremost, but no society will be a democracy when 50% [women] don’t have equal rights” Sussan said.
Mervat Mhani, founded the charity “Missing in Libya” after she lost her cousin and she saw the anguish her aunt and uncle endured by simply not knowing what had happened to him. The numbers of missing and dead in Libya are still not really known.
Mervat describes how she was transformed from a regular mother and wife, to becoming an activist; “I never thought of myself as an activist, I just thought how I could help. I smuggled international media around Tripoli, I hung the independence flag.” The story is the same for many women, who became involved in the struggle through supporting the uprisings at the roots.
But many women have also been at the forefront of the demonstrations, fearlessly defying the regimes they campaign against. Maryam’s sister, Zaynab Alkhawaja, was arrested the day before the event for protesting against the Bahraini regime. Maryam said “Zaynab and others were sitting on the roundabout; they were attacked by security forces. There is a clear video that shows the entire process of her arrest – she was screaming ‘Down Hamad’ [Bahrain’s King], when she was handcuffed and dragged to a police bus. She was slapped and punched in the face, and had her headscarf taken off and put around her mouth” A video of Zanyab’s arrest can be found here.
Listening to these women speak is nothing less than inspiring. All of them are determined to keep women at the forefront of the struggle in the Middle East and ensure that women’s rights are redefined along with the reshaping of politics and society throughout the region.
The key message the women wanted the audience to take away is that the idea of Arab women needs to change in the hearts and in the media of the western world, and in referring to the women of the revolution, look at the women as a whole.
Women will remain
We need to see these women as a constant and not just a reality during the revolution. They will remain after. All of the women were keen to purport that reform needs to come from within the Middle East and not imposed on them by the West, as this most certainly be met with rejection.
Maryam explained that there is an anti-western sentiment in the middle east as “middle eastern people see western governments as hypocritical as they have supported authoritarian regimes in the past.”
Mervat explained that Libya needs western support in “capacity building and rehabilitation for government which can be done without imposing western beliefs.”
Sussan expressed that she advocates equality through human rights and many Muslim people will only be accepting of these as long as they do not contradict their religious beliefs. She said “we need to redefine our policies so we can defend our decisions to our children, and, if in 30 years time your children challenge them, they will not be beaten or arrested.”
“Feminism is not a Western Concept”
In regards to their beliefs about their rights as women and their religious beliefs Maryam said “I am a Muslim and I am a feminist. I can be both”, whilst Sussan explained that “I am a Muslim and I hate when I am held to account by someone else’s interpretation of my religion. Human dignity is not a western concept. Feminism is not a Western concept.”
The struggle for equality for women will be a long and well travelled road for many countries in the Arab Spring, but we can be certain, that with activists such as Sussan, Maryam and Mervat, it will be a vibrant one.