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

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By Kelly McEvers

See the original post and listen to the segment via All Things Considered at NPR.com

May 31, 2011

 

For the past 2 1/2 months, Bahrain’s government has cracked down brutally on opposition figures who led massive anti-government protests in February and March. Doctors, journalists, human rights workers and even elected officials have been detained and beaten.

The government’s most recent targets are women.

“They took me from my work,” one woman says. “And from the beginning, they slapped me on my face, on my head, shoulder.”

The woman agreed to be recorded in an interview with NPR only if she could whisper, in English, so that authorities wouldn’t recognize her voice.

She had been detained, beaten, then let go. When she met with NPR, she was limping from pain.

Government Crackdown

The crackdown began in mid-March, after hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis had occupied the Pearl Roundabout, marked by a white monument that looked like elongated fingers stretching a precious jewel toward the sky.

The government says the protesters were engaged in a violent plot to overthrow the state. Protesters were dispersed, and the monument was flattened.

Authorities detained thousands of men who were known to oppose the government — and then went after the women.

The woman who spoke to NPR says she was taken by bus to a police station, blindfolded, and made to stand for five hours in a room. She was accused of working to bring down the Bahraini regime.

“They tried to force me to confess that I told people at my work to be against the regime,” she says.

Authorities showed the woman a picture of someone protesting at Pearl Roundabout. At the time, Bahrain’s crown prince said it was legal to protest. Now, authorities say it’s a crime.

“They tried to force me to confess that a picture in a protest — that it is my picture. And it was really not my picture,” the woman says.

She was taunted about one of her relatives, who has been jailed without charge for many weeks. “They said very bad things about him,” she says. “And they told me that, ‘Do you think he will come out of the jail? He will die in jail.'”

Under Threat

But perhaps the worst part of the ordeal was that the woman was detained at all. In an Arab culture, particularly in the Gulf, detaining a woman is the ultimate humiliation, going back to the days when the way one tribe defeated another was to capture and rape its women.

“They told me if I didn’t confess they will let men come and — continue with me,” the woman says. “They told me that.”

She says she understood what they meant — the men would do bad things to her. When asked if she was told that the men would rape her, she says, “No, they didn’t say — but to beat … strong and [hard].”

When asked if she ever felt like she was in danger of something worse, like some kind of sexual attack, she replies, “Maybe, yes. Maybe.”

Women Targeted

So far no Bahraini woman has reported being raped while in detention. Middle-aged men have reported being threatened with rape, and young men have reported being raped.

There is much, much more to this woman’s story — details that simply cannot be divulged at this time. One of her relatives is still in jail, and she is terrified for her children.

Analysts in the region say this is the first time in the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world that large groups of women have been targeted for going against the government.

Bahraini human rights groups say hundreds of women have been detained in recent weeks. Most were released. Dozens are still being held. One female journalist reportedly was beaten so badly she can’t walk. Authorities have vowed to investigate.

In her whole life, the whispering woman says, she has never been treated like this. No one has ever raised a finger to her, she says, or said a single unkind word.

If they apologize for this, she says, maybe Bahrain can go forward again. But if they don’t, she says, we will live with this shame forever. And that shame might eventually turn into revenge.

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Source: Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights

26/05/2011

(Cairo, May 25, 2011) The revolution of the 25th of January, 2011 was not born out of the moment, but was the result of a long struggle of all political and civil forces in Egypt. Women participated in all phases of this struggle and bore serious risks to confront the former regime and its security armory. This year, the 25th of May comes after the great revolution in which women participated to its success. Today marks the day in which women paid the price on the day of the referendum to amend article 76 of the constitution in 2005.

The 25th of May 2005 witnessed the rise of many voices of the Egyptian opposition by the announcement of a protest and criticism of what was described as – the fake change which forged the will of the people – on the so-called referendum to renew the presidential term of the former president. Young women and men and activists were at the forefront of those who gathered in front of the press syndicate and the judges club.

Despite the huge propaganda and use of all the resources of the state to support the play of the referendum, tens of young men and women worried the security forces and the ruling party to the extent that they decided to use more oppressive methods. They used a new security approach against the young women and men participating in the demonstration that caused the psychological feeling of defeat. The physical and sexual attacks targeted all people who protested or tried to protest against the fake referendum conducted by the state. All demonstrators were targeted, with a special focus on women and girls who were sexually harassed.

The militias of the National Democratic Party practiced before the eyes of all security forces the severe oppression from the very first moment of the attack on the demonstrators. The security forces – at the beginning – intentionally surrounded the demonstrators, severely pressured them while their back was against the wall, then split them – violently – into small separated groups.

Members of the security forces promptly dealt with the demonstrators in these small groups by direct orders of the officers who pushed them to cruelly beat the demonstrators and to sexually harass the women and girls. The orders of officers included verbal abuse that can provoke every free person. The security forces sought to kidnap prominent figures – of both sexes – from the demonstration, took them to the side streets to beat them, and then made them disappear in the buses of deportation, or in near police stations.

Security forces used the soldiers of the Egyptian central security forces who came out in civilian clothes, concentrated on the sexual harassment of women and girls by violently harassing their bodies, tearing their clothes, and removing the veil of veiled women, in addition to dragging them on the ground by their hairs; as for women or girls who tried to escape, they followed them and incited thugs to surround them to fulfil what they had begun. The women who could stop a taxi were forced out after they had horrified the driver to fulfil what they had begun. If they resorted to a shop or a residential building, they were surrounding it and breaking through with direct orders from the officers.

The message that the police and the former regime wanted to deliver at that time was that sexual harassment is the destiny for women who will participate in reform and requests of democracy.

It is worth mentioning that the victims of this day reached 13 female activists. Many of the private Egyptian and international media and blogs said that some thugs attacked female journalists, political activists, beat them, tore their clothes and sexually harassed them. In addition, a number of female journalists and activists, victims of what was then named “black Wednesday” reported to the general prosecutor what they had been subjected to. However, the general prosecutor then issued a decision to dismiss the investigations in the incident due to the failure of knowing the perpetrators.

At the end, the investigation was dismissed in this case due to the failure to know the perpetrator. The general prosecution ignored the witnesses, images and videos that demonstrated the attack!!

The dismissal of the investigation resulted in the statements presented by some activists to the African Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights which is affiliated to the African Union, since 24 organizations from the civil society presented a claim with the number 323 in the year 2006 (323/2006) in the name of 4 female journalists and activists who had been subjected to attacks. The claim included charges against the Egyptian government; that it violated the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which was signed by the Egyptian government and became integral and compulsory to the Egyptian legislation in March 20, 1984. The journalists syndicate, many writers, activists and human rights organizations also condemned the incident and called for the resignation of the interior minister and for the trial of the people responsible for it.

Although these severe incidents occurred, they did not impede Egyptian women from resuming their efforts in the political work. In the revolution the Egyptian women stood side by side with Egyptian men. Their bodies bore what had been borne by men’s bodies, by the violence of the security forces of all its types beginning with the sticks, and tear gas bombs to live and rubber bullets. There were women injured and martyrs.

Women shaped human armors and stood in the popular committees. They experienced the battle of the camels, and confronted the thugs of the NDP. At that time they were not concerned about being women or men, mothers or young women, Muslims or Christians; they were just remembering that they are Egyptians.

As the acts of women were not new for them, and were not separated from their historical national role played over ages for the renaissance and liberation of their nation from different types of authoritarianism, women’s role in this popular revolution must not ignored. The price they paid as Egyptian citizen must not be omitted. It is also unacceptable in any name or under any type of guardianship, either political or social, that women are excluded on the political stage in the coming period, which is full of national challenges for all of us as Egyptians, women and men.

The achievements of the Egyptian women, which reached a minimum level of citizenship, were obtained after a long struggle for which they paid a high price. They were not granted from a ruler or a ruler’s wife, as said by people who want to forge history and cancel the Egyptian awareness. Instead, these achievements of the Egyptian women affirm that women are on their path to equality and human rights.

We sought to achieve real participation in decision making, and equal opportunities that ensure to every Egyptian female citizen and every Egyptian male citizen to carry out their duties towards their nation under a new civilian constitution that cancels all types of guardianship and distinctions and ensures the complete rights and equality for all. All we desired is empowering women, who are half of the society, to resume their role as Egyptian citizens to ensure their access to broad and comprehensive types of the meaning of democracy.

The Egyptian society as a whole and afore them the national figures and the military council are requested to support and help the victory of women’s rights as part and parcel of human rights. We also desire the removal of the obstacles to their participation in the decision making and wish that the required measures to ensure this are taken.

(There is no democracy without women’s participation, and there is no women’s participation without democracy)

Check out the blog Saudi Women Driving for some of the latest stories from the Kingdom featuring the work of women’s activists!

By Neil MacFarquhar, May 23, 2011

Published by the New York Times

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The government of Saudi Arabia moved swiftly to extinguish a budding protest movement of women claiming the right to drive, a campaign inspired by uprisings across the Arab world demanding new freedoms but at risk Monday of foundering.

Cars at a checkpoint near a mall entrance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A national protest supporting the right for women to drive is scheduled for June 17.

Manal al-Sharif, 32, one of the campaign organizers, was detained Sunday in the eastern city of Dammam for up to five days on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion by twice driving in a bid to press her cause, said her lawyer, Adnan al-Saleh.

Ms. Sharif was arrested after two much-publicized drives last week to highlight the Facebook and Twitter campaigns she helped organize to encourage women across Saudi Arabia to participate in a collective protest scheduled for June 17.

The campaigns, which had attracted thousands of supporters — more than 12,000 on the Facebook page — have been blocked in the kingdom. Ms. Sharif’s arrest was very likely intended to give others pause before participating in the protests in a country where a woman’s public reputation, including her ability to marry, can be badly damaged by an arrest.

“Usually they just make you sign a paper that you will not do it again and let you go,” said Wajiha Howeidar, who recorded Ms. Sharif while driving on Thursday. “They don’t want anybody to think that they can get away with something like that. It is a clear message that you cannot organize anything on Facebook. That is why she is in prison.”

The revolt that overthrew the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and similar efforts in the Middle East gained crucial momentum online.

Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women from driving. But the topic remains a highly emotional issue in the kingdom, where women are also not allowed to vote, or even work without their husbands’, or fathers’, permission. For religious puritans, the ban on women driving is a sign that the government remains steadfast in the face of a Western onslaught on Saudi traditions. A political cartoon here once depicted car keys attached to a hand grenade.

Even before the arrest, the debate was raging online, on television and in the streets between supporters and opponents. One argument endorsing the change is that women drove donkeys in Koranic times, with a television cleric noting in recent days that handling a donkey was actually harder than driving a vehicle. Supporters believed that the changes sweeping the Arab world made it the right moment for women to seize the initiative.

An online petition addressed to King Abdullah, asking him to free Ms. Sharif and grant women the right to drive, gathered signatures from more than 600 men and women after it was organized by Walid Abu al-Khair, a Saudi lawyer and human rights advocate. Saudis are often reluctant to publicly attach their names to political actions.

Many opponents were religious puritans who object to the very idea of women being exposed to strangers outside their homes by driving. The ban is rooted more primarily in religious fatwas, nonbinding decrees by clerics.

In the new online battlefield, conservative clerics have been deploying their own Twitter accounts to call on the religious police to be extra vigilant against the prospect of women drivers.

Some women were opposed, too, because they said that driving remains such a social lightning rod and that raising the issue is likely to set back efforts to gain more fundamental freedoms like voting or ending the legal guardianship that allows Saudi men to control virtually every aspect of women’s lives.

But Ms. Sharif and others decided to take to the roads in May to encourage a higher turnout for the national protest. Saudi newspapers have been filled with articles in recent days detailing a rash of women taking to the roads — publishing confessions of women who drove their children to school, a father to the airport or themselves on errands.

One of the arguments for allowing women to drive is the economic cost. There are some 800,000 foreign drivers in the kingdom, and the roughly $350 monthly salary needed to hire one is considered an economic drain on the middle class.

Ms. Sharif, an information technology specialist with the state-run oil company Aramco, has a reputation for pulling stunts to highlight the lack of rights for women. Such was her renown that certain myths about her circulate widely as fact—like the false tale that she once rode a donkey down a main Riyadh shopping street until the religious police stopped her.

She took her drive on Saturday with her brother Mohamed al-Sharif, who was initially detained with her by the religious police and then released. The local police returned to her house after midnight to arrest her again.

“That was a mistake,” Mr. Saleh, her lawyer, said in a telephone interview from Dammam. “It is not considered a big crime in Saudi Arabia — it was not smuggling drugs, nor murder, nor rape — it was a girl driving a car.”

Originally published in The Economist on May 12, 2011.

Women’s influence in politics is growing, but it is still small

THIS week in Istanbul 13 European countries signed a Council of Europe convention on combating violence against women. All 47 members were urged to comply. Turkey pushed hard for the convention, which calls for hotlines, shelters and legal aid for abused women.

So it should. Turkey ranks with Russia as one of the worst countries in Europe for abuse of women. By the government’s admission, five women a day were killed by abusers in the first seven months of 2009. A chilling new report from Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, suggests that the situation is getting worse. It finds that 42% of women over 15 have suffered physical or sexual violence; they are vulnerable even when pregnant. Asli, a 21-year old Kurdish woman, was injected with poison, beaten and raped by her husband and in-laws, and locked in a barn without food or water. She decided to seek help from local prosecutors after her father-in-law burned her arm and declared that “I didn’t just get you here for my son, but also for my pleasure.” But the prosecutors never contacted her, and she now fears for her life. Asli’s story is all too common.

Turkey’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party is credited with making unprecedented reforms to protect women since it came to power in 2002. The laws are, however, spottily implemented. Single women, divorcees and wives taken in illegal Islamic marriages are not covered. Police often turn away victims on the grounds that “family unity must be preserved.” Hulya Gulbahar, a feminist lawyer, says that Turkey’s overtly pious prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has set the wrong tone. “His diatribes against divorce and calls for women to bear at least three children have made things worse,” she claims. Turkey lags in equality, ranking 126 among 134 countries in the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index. Another study finds that women account for four-fifths of Turkey’s 5.7m illiterate people.

All this should provide fodder for the opposition in the run-up to a general election on June 12th. In fact, the rare talk of women in the campaign is mostly about footage posted on the internet showing candidates from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) secretly filmed in compromising situations. The good news is that the number of women elected to the 550-seat parliament is expected to double from the current 50 (9%). But Turkey will still be behind other Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan (28%) and the United Arab Emirates (23%).

The best news is that women are getting organised. Those battling to end restrictions on the headscarf are among the most vocal. Secular women support the campaign to force parties to accept female candidates who cover their heads. “No headscarves, no votes,” is their slogan. Although Mr Erdogan and most of his cabinet are married to veiled women, the AK has nominated only one similarly pious woman, for an unwinnable seat. Mr Erdogan’s excuse is that his party was nearly banned in 2008 because of its efforts to lift the headscarf ban. A pro-AK newspaper columnist, Ali Bulac, provoked fury when he suggested that veiled women were “spies” acting for secularists or were exploiting their plight to advance their careers. “You would rather have us stay at home and wash your socks,” riposted Nihal Bengisu Karaca, a (veiled) columnist at the forefront of the campaign. Will she vote for AK anyway? “Absolutely not,” she says.

By Stephanie Dahle, originally published on Forbes.com on May 9, 2011

Oman’s religious leader, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmed Al Khalili, recently issued a rare political statement in support of women candidates for the country’s parliment, called the Majlis al Shura.

“It would be wrong for voters to think women cannot use good judgement in the running of our affairs,” Sheikh Ahmed told The National.

Despite having a small population (about 3 million), this push for female empowerment has the potential to make a big impact in the country and region. Following protests that began in February 2011, Oman’s leader Sultan Qaboos Bin Said granted more legislative powers to the previously ceremonial parliament. The next election is slated to take place in October; currently there are 11 women and 500 men registered to run for 84 positions.While women have served in the Majlis al Shura in 2002 and 2005, there are no women presently represented.

Women in Oman enjoy a great deal of freedom. They are active in the workforce and the country’s only public university, Sultan Qaboos University, has consistently graduated more women then men. I’ve lived in Oman this past year and have felt free to be myself. I’ve spent countless hours studying at coffee shops, integrated into the local community and haven’t regularly worn a veil.

Oman’s attitude towards women is in contrast to neighboring Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive or travel without a permission from a male guardian.

Still, it doesn’t mean women in Saudi Arabia don’t fight for more rights. Last month, a group of women tried to register to vote. All but two of the women were “politely” declined.

“We want to make our voices heard,” Nayla Attar, one of the activists, told AFP.

I applaud the women who were brave enough to try to register to vote (and the NPR reporter that joined them). I have high hopes that women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to vote like the citizens they are. And, here in Oman, I hope that– come October– women will once again serve on the Majlis al Shura.

By Heba Hesham

Originally Published by Bikya Masr, May 2, 2011

CAIRO: The New Woman Foundation (NWRC) launched a campaign concerning the demands of Egyptian women in employment titled “Together for fair working conditions without violence and discrimination” on Sunday in an effort to bolster women’s role in Egyptian society.

The past 10 years have witnessed a significant increase in the percentage of female participation in the labor force. In 2002, the percentage of women in the labor force jumped from 21.8 percent to 23.9 percent in 2008, according to the Foundation’s report.

A Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) report points to the high proportion of the contribution of women in economic activities, education, public administration and defense sectors. But the NWRC says more work is needed.

On the other hand, the representation of women is still weak in the mining and quarrying sector, hotels and restaurants, electricity and gas sectors, not to mention the contribution of women in the private industrial sector and also the informal sector. Information and statistics is limited due to the absence of fixed employment contracts, said the NWRC.

“Despite the increase in the economic role of women as 33 percent of Egyptian households are headed by women, it is not accompanied by women’s access to any privileges in the workplace,” said a statement from the organization.

“There is a clear derogation of the women rights in the workplace, including denying women access to maternity leave in most private enterprises, and non-availability of crèches in most governmental and private institutions.”

The Foundation added in its statement that there are some areas of work that deprive women of opportunities for promotion and training on the basis of gender.

An example of this is what is known as the “State Council crisis,” which is considered “blatant discrimination” against women in Egypt.

In its statement, NWRC also stressed their rejection of most companies and factories owners to appoint women in some jobs such as engineers. At the same time they seek the help of women workers who are young and prefer the unmarried, mostly with medium education, to work in the textile, clothing and food industries. Those workers are dealt with as “cheap labor with a weak ability to resist.”

The current laws exclude domestic and agricultural workers from the application of the provisions of the law upon them, keeping them without any legal guarantees even in determining working hours or wages, leave or injury insurance, as well as their protection from physical or sexual violence, stated the NWRC.

Thus, it is clear that women in the workplace are subjected to various forms of violations related to being “women”, according to NWRC, not to mention that they share the same public demands with their male colleagues.

Some of the demands that both gather around are the cancellation of the law that criminalize strikes, the release of trade union freedoms, the implementation of judicial decisions to disband the boards of the official union and its syndicates, the determination of both minimum and maximum wages in order to ensure a decent life for workers and staff members and ensure lessening the disparities between incomes, along with fixing all temporary employment.

Whoever signs the statement of the New Woman Foundation confirms his support for these demands, the Foundation continued.

In addition, the subscriber agrees on demanding for taking the necessary measures to ensure equal opportunities between women and men in different areas of work as in payment, promotion and training.

The statement also calls for activating articles on reproductive rights for women in the labor laws to ensure women’s access to maternity leave and child care along with the stipulation of nurseries.

NWCR demands amending the labor law to allow the extension of the legal protection of women workers in the informal sector including domestic workers, agricultural workers and others.

Moreover, it calls for adopting policies to enable women to take public positions in the state ranging between governors, Ministers and Ambassadors.

The subscribers in the signature campaign calls for taking the necessary measures and procedures to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace and to highlight the economic contribution of women in the national gross.

Anyone who would like to contribute and share these demands with the New Woman Foundation and those who signed the statement should provide the foundation with “his or her name, the profession, the governorate and a channel of communication,” according to the NWCR.