Are women let down by revolutions?
From the 1979 Iranian revolution to the Arab uprising of 2011, women have taken to the streets, chanted, protested, tweeted, petitioned and fought.
They have stood shoulder to shoulder with their male friends and relatives, demanding the end of dictatorships and a new dawn for democracy, along with dignity and human rights for everybody.
Women have also been badly let down by the causes they have so passionately campaigned for.
Only this week, 10,000 women marched on the streets of Cairo in protest over police brutality.
Many of the marchers touted the photo of the young woman whose clothes were partially pulled off by troops, leaving her naked down to her blue bra, as she struggled on the ground.
Last week’s Frontline Club event, Women of the Revolution, aimed to explore the roles women have played in the revolutions and tried to shed some light on what lies in store for them.
Chaired by Channel 4 News’ International Editor Lindsey Hilsum, the panel consisted of Maryam Alkhawaja, Bahraini human rights activist and head of foreign relations at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights; Mervat Mhani, member of Libyan NGO The Free Generation Movement and and now involved in tracing people missing in Libya in the last 42 years, and Sussan Tahmasebi, a women’s rights and civil society activist from Iran, and founding member of the One Million Signatures Campaign.
“What we know from revolutions in the past is that women are there in the forefront, and then, ‘thank you very much sisters, we’ll be worrying about your rights and demands later, when we do more important things first’,” Hilsum warned in her opening remarks.
Maryam Alkhawaya comes from a family of activists, many of whom have been on the receiving end of police brutality in Bahrain.
So much so that she joked that Bahrain should adopt family cells in prisons, so her family members could spend some time together.
Her sister Zainab, aka @angryarabia, was arrested on 15 December during a non-violent sit-in west of Manama. She is one of tens of thousands of women of the revolution.
“The Bahrain revolution is at least 50 per cent made-up and led by women,” said Alkhawaya. “It has been breaking a stereotype of Muslim women, according to which they need to have a certain personality if they dress a certain way.”
Alkhawaya described seeing a video of a traditionally-dressed Muslim woman, in the early days of the revolution, spraying graffiti which, she pointed out, fully illustrated the steely determination behind the abaya.
“Even if men stop, women will continue,” she said.
She added that western governments should not extend their support to the Bahraini regime’s feeble attempts to police itself.
She was particularly critical of the Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up by the King of Bahrain, which was supposed to investigate human rights violations.
“That is a dangerous precedent,” said Alkhawaya. “We have an authoritarian regime setting up their own Commission of Inquiry. They will use this report to sweep under the carpet all the human rights violations that they have committed.
“I don’t think we would have had the same reaction had Mubarak visited London in January 2011: King Hamad and his son came to London a few days ago. His son still has the allegations of torture against him.
“And yet, there was no huge outcry from the international community. All because of this, so called, human rights report.”
The second panelist, Libyan Mervat Mhani, unaccustomed to public speaking, never saw herself as an activist.
“Up until a year ago I was only a mother,” she said, apologising for her nervousness when addressing the audience.
“I’ve faced Gaddafi’s brigades and interrogation, but this is a lot more difficult,” she joked.
But her story demonstrated what a fierce fighter she was.
“Before the revolution I lived a normal life,” she said. “When there were uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, I was following very closely.
“We were wondering whether it would happen in Libya. We had so much fear in us that we didn’t think it was going to happen. I never believed it would.”
But when the Libyan people began to mobilise on social networking sites to protest against the 42-year-long oppressive regime of Muammar Gaddafi, Mhani could not sit silently.
“No Libyan wanted to stay home. We didn’t want to stand for the killing, or the murders, or the regime any more,” she explained.
“It was very difficult. They started shooting at protesters in Tripoli – there was indiscriminate killing. Protesting wasn’t an option any more. Going out was basically suicide.”
The crackdown on protesters forced her and her family to think of alternative, non-violent ways to participate.
“I hung flags for independence, smuggled reporters from the Rixos hotel, and talked to the international community,” she said.
“The internet was cut, so my brothers and cousins stole a satellite from a government building and tweeted out to the rest of the world. We tried our best – we never carried guns, we were never armed.”
Despite her non-violent methods she was arrested by Gaddafi’s security forces after she had been interviewed by Reuters and BBC journalists. Nevertheless, she considers herself to be one of the lucky ones. She was released.
Many other prisoners simply disappeared.
Although there is a long way to go before there will be women’s equality in Libya, Mhani is optimistic.
“With the NTC [National Transitional Council] having one woman, it’s still early days, I believe. But we’re not going to stand back and not take a role – no way.”
Iran is another country where women have been no strangers to revolutions. It also acts as a warning to the female revolutionaries of today.
The women’s contribution to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which saw the overthrow of the Shah, was rewarded with curbs on their rights and one interpretation of Sharia law was adopted.
Sussan Tahmasebi worked at grassroot levels for 11 years in her native Iran on promoting women’s rights and strengthening civil society.
Tahmasebi stressed that women in Iran are better educated than men and that the average age of marriage is 25.
Women are doctors, lawyers, teachers – active participants in the civil society – all of which defies the Western stereotypes of women in the Middle East.
“[Against] the background of the repressive laws that had been adopted 30 years ago, you have a very strong society with women’s presence. Iran has one of the strongest women’s movements in the region.”
During her work in Iran, but also throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Tahmasebi noticed that the greatest challenge for women who advocate for their rights is the “discourse of culture and religion versus human rights”.
“We must remember that human rights and Islam are not mutually exclusive.
“We need to really advocate for a civil law, which takes into consideration universal human rights standards. Because they are universal. They are not only Western. They are just as much Islamic as they are Christian.”
Tahmasebi talked of the danger of women and their rights being sidelined once the political revolutions in the Arab world are over.
She said that the Western world cited “cultural reasons” in their frequently hands-off approach to women’s rights. However, the risk is that the Arab world will fail the democracy test.
“No democracy is going to be a democracy when 50 per cent of the population have half of the rights of the other 50 per cent,” she pointed out.
When asked about the political rise of the Islamist parties in post-revolution Arab world, Tahmasebi said: “It is still better than the dictatorships we had before.
“But, what makes me nervous is that some of these Islamic parties are not clear on the specifics.
“We need to ask questions like: What do you think about polygamy? Can you see women in high positions? We need to hold these people accountable.
“These countries have a golden opportunity to to draft constitutions. They need to draft laws that they can defend to their daughters, their children, in 30 years time.”