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

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By Bill Law, originally published on April 13, 2011 by BBC News.

The Egyptian revolution did not occur out of the blue. Activists, male and female, have for years been pushing for change.

Here, five women who helped to shape and define the revolution – a young blogger, the daughter of a powerful Muslim Brother, a Coptic Christian doctor, a persecuted democracy activist and a labour organiser – explain what it means to them.

Dalia Ziada
Dalia Ziada fears that some of the gains of Tahrir Square are already being lost

Dalia Ziada: When I first met Dalia she was a wide-eyed cyber activist determined to use her blogs to secure rights for all Egyptians but especially for women. Now, three years on, she is a veteran blogosphere campaigner.

But it was when she was in Tahrir Square standing shoulder to shoulder with a poor, uneducated woman that she realised she was part of something bigger.

“I asked this woman why she had come and she said ‘for change’, and then I knew the revolution had begun.”

But disillusionment has set in. “During the revolution, it didn’t matter if you were young or old, a man or a woman. The only thing that mattered was that you were Egyptian.

“Now we are back to our differences, you are a man, you are a woman, we are told we should not be mingling, and not talk about everything as before.”

“It brings disappointment and fear to my heart, actually.”

 

Zaahra al-Shatter
Zaahra al-Shatter, daughter of the senior Muslim Brother, demonstrated daily on Tahrir Square

Zaahra al-Shatter: The last time I saw Zaahra, a mother of three, was in March 2008.

A school administrator, she had just seen her father and husband – both members of the then banned Muslim Brotherhood – seized in a night raid.

She was resolute in her determination to fight for their release, petitioning the government relentlessly, and appealing to the media.

Now they are out, she has shifted her energies to education: “The greatest thing about this revolution is that it has given the children of Egypt hope and freedom.”

She says she is “encouraging the children to think in a different way, to do different projects, to believe in different values. It is very important.”

 

Dr Mona Mina
Dr Mona Mina still fights for better health provision, as well as the political revolution

Mona Mina: Mona Mina, a Christian, is the leader of an organisation called Doctors Without Rights.

For years she has fought for better pay and working conditions for doctors. Under President Mubarak, repression and corruption made that an unwinnable fight.

Now she is seizing the opportunity. She was at Tahrir Square, but she worries that the revolution could be stolen, that the old ways will simply find new ways to reassert themselves.

“The feeling of liberation has started, but it is not complete yet. It’s the first step in a long road, there are still many things that need to happen for real liberation.”

And she says that she and the other Tahrir Square protesters will, if necessary, “shed blood to keep the revolution alive.”

 

Gameela Ismail
Gameela Ismail will run for parliament this time

Gameela Ismail: Gameela Ismail was a popular television presenter, when she and her then husband Ayman Nour openly challenged Hosni Mubarak.

Ayman Nour ran for president and lost. He was stripped of parliamentary immunity and thrown in jail.

The couple’s bank accounts were frozen. Gameela was sacked from her job and subjected to years of harassment as she campaigned for his release.

She is proud of what Egyptians have accomplished, comparing it to the fall of the Berlin Wall. “We made a revolution on our own – the people of Egypt owe no-one.”

And now, “for the first time, it’s our country, not their [the regime’s] country.

“Walking in the streets now is completely different to before, the feeling that for the first time the street is yours, the neighbourhood is yours, the country is yours.”

Gameela is running for parliament in the elections scheduled for later this year.

 

Ayesha Abdul Aziz
Ayesha Abdul Aziz hopes to continue her fight for better schools and hospitals in parliament

 

Ayesha Abdul Aziz: Ayesha is a farmer in the Nile Delta and a labour organiser. In her household unmarried Ayesha sits at the head of the table. In this and in so many other ways she is different from most rural women.

In 2008, she led a strike to win equal pay for female tobacco factory workers.

She won that fight against the odds. But last year she lost an attempt win a seat in parliament, in blatantly rigged elections.

She will run again in the elections scheduled for later this year. Win or lose, she will fight for better schools, better hospitals, for decent roads and clean water.

“I am a woman and thank God I know my rights.”

But she does not think that a woman will ever become president of Egypt.

“No, no, no, that is not an issue for me. Egypt is so tough, it really needs a man to run it.”

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