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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Although the success of the Tunisian protestors in toppling their own government undoubtedly influenced the Egyptians, Ziada emphasized that the revolution was not spontaneous, countering the media narrative of an impulsive uprising; “long years of work by civil society actors, university students, and activists” nurtured the growth a vibrant dissident movement. “We have been fighting for ten years,” stressed Ziada, “not just on the internet but in on-the-ground activities.”

Enthusiasm for civil society in Egypt strengthened throughout the 2000s, despite crackdowns – often violence – by state security against the work of NGOs and dissidents.  Grassroots organizing, promoting, above all, non-violent resistance, laid the groundwork for protest mobilizing in Winter 2011.  Egyptians, notes Ziada, were impressed by the successes of other non-violent revolution, from Eastern Europe to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Many young activists were for the first time introduced to the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a result of Ziada’s Arabic translation and distribution of The Montgomery Story, a comic book illustrating Dr. King’s non-violent protest methods during the Civil Rights Movement.

What made 2011 such a pivotal year for these activists?

In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation brought what were, for many, latent issues of repression, lack of economic mobility, and humiliation, to the forefront of Tunisian consciousness.  For Egyptians, the movement towards protest began in the summer of 2010, with the death of Khaled Said, a young man in Alexandria.  Dragged out from a cyber café by state security and beaten to death at a nearby police station, Said’s murder rapidly turned into a wake up call for the Egyptians: the government perceived its own citizens as an internal enemy.  Online activists, says Ziada, quickly turned up to memorialize Said.  Wael Ghonim, a Google executive in Egypt who had never before been involved in politics and had never met Said, began his own Facebook group, titled “We are all Khaled Said,” as a tribute to the young man and to draw attention to the oppressive and often violent conditions that every Egyptian faces.

In Ziada’s opinion, the fact that activists were finally “able to combine the success of the online world with outreach to people on the ground” contributed to the massive outpouring against the Mubarak regime and  the call for democratization.  Despite heavy internet promotion of January 25th – Egypt’s official police holiday – as a day of national protest, the activists, Ziada explains, “never thought it would turn into something this big.  We were just going to spend the day in the streets and go home.”  But something was different this time: “usually the poor are very apathetic, especially in protests where there is the possibility for police violence,” says Ziada.  But they were there, marching into Tahrir Square, demonstrating their opposition to the Mubarak regime.  Unlike previous protest movements, which remained limited to particular segments of society, the protestors assembled in January and February represented a wide swath of Egyptian society – poor, rich, urban, Coptic, Muslim, male, female.

Although accounts of brutality in Tahrir Square by the state police and NDP thugs have been widely documented—the image of camels charging protestors circulated headlines across the globes—Ziada noted that observers should not conflate police forces with their counterparts in the military.  The military, says Ziada, belonged to the Egyptian people: “Even though they had the green light to kill people and end the protests as quickly as possible, we were not scared of them, we welcomed them.”  Camaraderie between the young army officers and the young protestors grew throughout the protests: “people kept chanting for them, and cheering for them.  This moved the young officers of the lower ranks, the same average age of the youth participating in the protests.”  With younger officers siding with the protestors, older officers began to rethink their orders.  “They felt like they belonged to these people,” explains Ziada.

Though the fall of the Mubarak regime on February 12th was, for Ziada, “the happiest day of my life,” she stresses that Egypt still has to accept extensive social and political changes before democracy can truly reach its people.  Ziada remains concerned about the push for elections: “rushing to democracy without establishing liberalism” will present a difficult challenge for those aspiring to see a truly free, truly democratic Egypt.  She called on lawmakers and civil society leaders in the United States to help educate Egyptians “about their civil rights and about liberalism” so that Egypt can avoid falling into theocracy, as in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

 

As a regular activist and blogger for women’s issues in Egypt and across the Middle East, Ziada also expressed her disenchantment with the reconstruction process with regards to women’s participation in Egypt’s new government.  Despite women’s tireless participation in the democracy protests of January and February, not one woman has been invited to sit on the constitutional amendment committee.  “It’s very sad that women are going to be marginalized in the next phase,” Ziada laments.  On March 8th, a planned “Million Women March” for Egyptian women only drew out a few hundred supporters.  These women were, unfortunately, met with opposition and even violence from male opponents. “Male protestors who had previously been standing with women shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir square, they came out and told the women, ‘go back home, it’s not your time now.’  But how can democracy be achieved without women’s rights?”  To respond to this persistent disenfranchisement of women, Ziada called for greater efficiency among Egypt’s many women’s rights NGOs, and guidance from foreign organizations to “help us pressure and educate people about liberal democracy, and economic and constitutional liberalism,” which will undoubtedly lead to greater gender equality in Egypt.

The uncertainty clouding the reconstruction of the Egyptian government has led to concerns of the revival of Islamism or Mubarak’s NDP, a rise in sectarian violence, and the persistence of gender inequality; however, Ziada remains optimistic about Egypt’s future.  She maintains her faith in the transformative potential of Egypt’s youth: “they know that their leaders are radical, hypocritical, and abusive,” Ziada explains, and “they will not tolerate fraudulent elections.”  Young activists and students will not “sacrifice their liberal ideals,” but guard them closely now that democracy is within their grasp.

 

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