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

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By Dorothy Smith

Originally Published by the Center for Private Enterprise, june 30, 2011

Though I am a woman, I have never focused in depth on women’s issues. Perhaps it was a counter-feminist within me that thought, “If we talk about women’s issues we’re perpetuating a difference between men and women. Or maybe it’s just that as a researcher on the Middle East, I steered clear of the ubiquitous discourse on the “Arab woman.” But a few recent events and stories have begun to chip away at this shell and spark in me a genuine interest in women’s political and economic empowerment.

The first was my participation in CIPE’s conference Democracy that Delivers for Women. In case you missed it, Stephanie Foster has a nice recap at the Huffington Post. Over the course of two days, women from across sectors and different countries spoke about education, entrepreneurship, technology, and more – and their relationship to women’s empowerment. But I’m not one for long, drawn out, up-in-the-clouds debates. So I was happy to hear examples of programs that have made it easier for women to start and maintain their own businesses, and to learn how financial independence has translated into political empowerment and support for democracy.

Soon after that, I was performing some background research on women and entrepreneurship, ahead of the Business Women Forum’s annual conference in the West Bank at which CIPE’s Chair Karen Kerrigan, Regional Director Abdulwahab Alkebsi, and Program Officer Amy Thornberry are presenting and facilitating discussions.

A quick internet search on women and business in Palestine returned this World Bank statistic: in the West Bank and Gaza women with a college degree or above account for 82 percent of unemployed women, compared to only 12 percent for men.

Why is that? What factors inhibit women working in Palestine, and how can these hurdles be removed? I’m sure this will be a central point of discussion at the conference.

Next, I read an article that describes how, while facing greater obstacles to doing business in the Middle East, women are slowly knocking down barriers to finance. The story gives excellent examples of how regulations and cultural characteristics have restricted women’s entry into the workforce. For instance, a woman entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia is likely to have difficulty registering her business because one cannot legally run a business from a home address. But as the article relates, more women becoming proactive: building their own investment vehicles, establishing their own financial firms, and creating outlets for their entrepreneurial spirit.

So women face all the same barriers to doing business as men, but these barriers disproportionally affect women because they are compounded by social and cultural norms, and in many cases unique legal environments.

I’m sliding, a bit reluctantly, down the path of women’s issues, and I’m actually eager to learn more about the unique circumstances that create disincentives for women to become entrepreneurs and work in the private sector, and how women and men are blazing paths to equal economic and political empowerment.


Al Masr al Youm, June 30, 2011

On Thursday, the 25 January Revolutionary Youth Coalition called for a massive protest in Tahrir Square on 8 July. Calling it the “Friday of Retribution”, the coalition hopes to put pressure on officials to speed up the trials of those accused of killing protesters during the revolution.

The coalition called on people to stay in Tahrir Square until officials meet their demands, including the immediate dismissal of Interior Ministry leaders involved in corruption cases and accused of oppression, particularly the directors of public security and central security.

In a statement, the coalition called for suspending any officers accused of harming protesters pending investigations, tracking all murderers and bringing them to a fair and speedy trial, opening trials of former regime stalwarts to the public, including that of former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and his assistants, and compensating people injured during the revolution as well as the families of the deceased.

They said instability in Egypt is due to the absence of political will to purge state institutions from National Democratic Party remnants and corrupt members, especially in the Interior Ministry.

They criticized the slow pace of trials and the decision to limit Prime Minister Essam Sharaf by not allowing him to choose his assistants and staff. Reliable sources told Al-Masry Al-Youm on Tuesday that the ruling military council refused Sharaf’s request to dismiss seven ministers.


Check out Sayidaty Magazine’s feature on AIC’s Dalia Ziada! For a closer look at the article, click on each photo below.








Second Update on Manal Al Sherif Manal Al Sherif, according to first reports of her sentence, was supposed to be released today. The local media has taken an official stance on Manal’s case. While columnists in these very same schizophrenic newspapers have taken the opposite position by supporting Manal and advocating lifting the ban on women driving. In one estimate, there were over 60 columns supporting Manal on Tuesday and Wednesday. Meanwhile the official stance is that Mana … Read More

via Saudiwoman's Weblog

originally published on

WASHINGTON – May 19, 2011 – Zainab Al-Suwaij, Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), attended President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East today at the State Department.

Al-Suwaij is an Iraq native who participated in the 1991 uprising that for one week liberated 15 Iraqi provinces. Following the September 11 attacks, she co-founded AIC to promote responsible leadership for the Muslim-American community. She has spent the last six years leading nonviolent training programs in the Middle East, including publishing an Arabic comic book on Martin Luther King.

Al-Suwaij offered the following statement on the President’s speech:

“The freedom ride that began 65 years ago when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus has now come to the Middle East. President Obama correctly observed that through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the Middle East have ‘achieved in six months more than terrorists have in decades.’

“The people of the region have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to nonviolence in the face of deadly assaults by illegitimate rulers. Their courage should dispel stereotypes that for too long dismissed the Middle East’s potential for liberal reform.

“America’s pragmatic policy of the past six decades – banking on dictators – is now revealed as a failed long-term investment strategy. It ignored the forgotten yet central Middle East conflict – between the people of the region and their repressive rulers – which has now exploded onto our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

“Economic development alone cannot address the historic challenge before us, and simply holding elections is a recipe for disaster. To achieve lasting liberty and stability, America needs to take decisive action to nurture civic institutions that respect individual rights. We help build open societies by supporting unconditionally people who share these values.

“We at AIC are already working to translate the values the President expressed into tangible programs: via the ‘Know Your Rights’ education effort in Egypt, the ‘Ambassadors of Peace’ initiative in Iraq, and contests on liberty for young essayists and filmmakers across the region. As Muslim-Americans, we have unique contributions to make during this historic time.”

AIC is a civil-rights organization promoting tolerance and the exchange of ideas among Muslims and between other peoples. With the motto “passionate about moderation,” the organization has offices in Washington, Boston, Egypt, and Iraq.

مواطنات يطالبن بالمشاركة في الانتخابات البلدية

via صحيفة عكاظ – مواطنات يطالبن بالمشاركة في الانتخابات البلدية.

NPR recently conducted several interviews with Muslim women of various ethnicities about “what it means to wear the headscarf, and why they decided to stop wearing it in public.”  You can check out the article below, and listen to NPR’s interviews at their website.

Originally Published on NPR, April 21, 2011

For centuries, Islamic scholars have said that Muslim women must cover their hair. But many Muslim women don’t.

There are about 1 million Muslim women in America; 43 percent of them wear headscarves all the time, according to the Pew Research Center. About 48 percent — or half a million women — don’t cover their hair, the survey found.

The split between women who’ve covered and women who’ve never done so has existed for decades. But now a generation of women is taking off the headscarf, or hijab.

Although the scarf is a public, sometimes even political symbol, women say the choice to unveil is highly private, emotional and religious.

‘A Huge Responsibility’

Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, 27, grew up attending an Islamic school in Bridgeview, Ill., a tiny Arab enclave on Chicago’s southwest side. It’s a place where most Muslim women wear the hijab.

For 14 years, Abdelnabi was one of them. But after she graduated from college, she took off her hijab. Now, she has sideswept bangs, the kind that hide part of her face. She’s quiet, reflective and sometimes shy.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to walk into a room and be unnoticed,” Abdelnabi says. “When you wear hijab and you walk into a room, everyone notices you; everyone stares at you; everyone makes assumptions about you.”

“When you put the scarf on, you have to understand that you are representing a community,” Abdelnabi says. “And that is huge. That’s a huge responsibility. And I don’t know if it’s for everyone.”

Talking over falafel at her favorite restaurant, Abdelnabi explains why she stopped wearing the hijab.

She says that Islam teaches modesty — but wearing the hijab is taking it a step too far.

“I’ve done my research, and I don’t feel its foundation is from Islam,” she says. “I think it comes from Arab culture.”

The headscarf can be a divisive issue among Muslims.

Abdelnabi describes the response some people have to that idea: “It’s like, ‘How dare you question God’s will. How dare you?’ ” she says.

And in a tight-knit Muslim community like Bridgeview, Abdlenabi worries about offending fellow Muslims with her opinions — so during most discussions about hijab, she tends to keep silent.

“I sometimes feel like talking about hijab is like talking about abortion in mid-America,” she says.

Looking For A Change

Another woman in Bridgeview, Leen Jaber, 29, says that a few years ago, she also decided to unveil.

“I started wearing hijab at the age of 14,” she says.

Jaber says she wore the scarf for 12 years. But as her marriage started to fall apart, she took it off.

“I was going through a lot of difficult things. Perhaps I thought taking it off would just be one less thing to worry about,” she says.

“I never took it off saying, like, it was the right decision. I just took it off because I wanted to do it. I wanted to see if my life would be different — if I would feel any better about the problems that I was going through.”

But Jaber’s problems didn’t go away — in fact, they got worse. She lost her job, got divorced and moved in with her parents. That got her thinking more about God, and spirituality. One year and eight months later, Jaber put the scarf back on.

“It was a very different process than I had gone through when I was 14,” she says. “When I was 14, it was like well, everybody’s wearing it.”

Jaber is outgoing and chatty. She writes poetry, blogs and dreams of the day she’ll be onAmerican Idol.

She says it’s easy for some women to feel like the headscarf strips them of their individuality and turns them into a spokeswoman for the faith.

To avoid that, Jaber says, she is making sure other parts of her personality — like her singing — shine through.

Wearing The Scarf, Post-Sept. 11

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are a persistent theme in conversations about how to approach a Muslim tradition in modern America.

For some women, that tragedy had absolutely no effect on their decision to uncover. But for others, it was huge. They spoke of two distinct phases in their hijab life: pre-Sept.11 and post-Sept. 11.

Some of them said the terrorist attacks initially strengthened their desire to wear the hijab. They became diplomats for Islam; they said they wanted to represent a positive Muslim image, to counter that of al-Qaida.

But in the years that followed, that fervor waned, as anti-Muslim zeal grew.

And for some women, the scarf became a heavy burden to carry — one that affected the way strangers perceived them, the way colleagues treated them, and even the way fellow Muslims expected them to behave.

For others, the decision to remove their headscarf simply came down to a choice, as they grew older.

An Evolving Identity

Nadia Shoeb’s family is from India. Her mother never wore a hijab. Her grandmother never wore a hijab. But Shoeb put one on when she was 17.

Shoeb, now 31, reads from a journal she kept back then:

“Never could I have imagined when I put it on, that five years later, on a day just as random as the day I put it on, I would take it off.”

Eight years later, she still remembers that day clearly.

“That feeling is like, ‘I am going out without a shirt on’ — that sense of feeling exposed,” Shoeb says.

“I had really long hair, and I actually tucked it into my sweater, because I was feeling so embarrassed that, ‘Oh my God, I’m showing my hair — am I being immodest somehow?’ “

“So that first day was quite difficult, just taking it off,” Shoeb says, “even though I looked like every girl on the street.”

America’s Religious Landscape

Shoeb’s decision was as much about religion as it was about her evolving feminine and American identity. She spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, where she wore shorts.

After arriving in the United States as a teenager, she decided to cover, and eventually uncover, her hair. And Shoeb says she doesn’t find that surprising.

“The religious landscape of America is one in which — it’s a very deeply religious nation, but at the same time, it’s so fluid,” she says. “You know, people are born into one faith, and then they might still be Christian — but become of a different sect, or a different church.”

The phenomenon of veiling and unveiling — and even re-veiling — is part of that same tradition, Shoeb says.

“We might think that this is something particular to Muslim-Americans,” she says, “when in fact, that’s the story of our religious landscape in America.”

Shoeb has no intention of putting the scarf back on. But she also says she wouldn’t be the person she is today if she had never worn it in the first place.

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.”

By Naomi Wolf

Al Jazeera English, March 4 2011

Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women: doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent, gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind rigid gender roles. So where were these women in Tunisia and Egypt?

In both countries, women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.

Other citizen reporters in Tahrir Square – and virtually anyone with a cell phone could become one – noted that the masses of women involved in the protests were demographically inclusive. Many wore headscarves and other signs of religious conservatism, while others reveled in the freedom to kiss a friend or smoke a cigarette in public.

Supporters, leaders

But women were not serving only as support workers, the habitual role to which they are relegated in protest movements, from those of the 1960s to the recent student riots in the United Kingdom. Egyptian women also organised, strategised, and reported the events. Bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada took grave risks to keep the world informed daily of the scene in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in Egypt did not just “join” the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes – and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.

The greatest shift is educational. Two generations ago, only a small minority of the daughters of the elite received a university education. Today, women account for more than half of the students at Egyptian universities. They are being trained to use power in ways that their grandmothers could scarcely have imagined: publishing newspapers – as Sanaa el Seif did, in defiance of a government order to cease operating; campaigning for student leadership posts; fundraising for student organisations; and running meetings.

Indeed, a substantial minority of young women in Egypt and other Arab countries have now spent their formative years thinking critically in mixed-gender environments, and even publicly challenging male professors in the classroom. It is far easier to tyrannise a population when half are poorly educated and trained to be submissive. But, as Westerners should know from their own historical experience, once you educate women, democratic agitation is likely to accompany the massive cultural shift that follows.

The nature of social media, too, has helped turn women into protest leaders. Having taught leadership skills to women for more than a decade, I know how difficult it is to get them to stand up and speak out in a hierarchical organisational structure. Likewise, women tend to avoid the figurehead status that traditional protest has in the past imposed on certain activists – almost invariably a hotheaded young man with a megaphone.

Projection of power

In such contexts – with a stage, a spotlight, and a spokesperson – women often shy away from leadership roles. But social media, through the very nature of the technology, have changed what leadership looks and feels like today. Facebook mimics the way many women choose to experience social reality, with connections between people just as important as individual dominance or control, if not more so.

You can be a powerful leader on Facebook just by creating a really big “us”. Or you can stay the same size, conceptually, as everyone else on your page – you don’t have to assert your dominance or authority. The structure of Facebook’s interface creates what brick-and-mortar institutions – despite 30 years of feminist pressure – have failed to provide: a context in which women’s ability to forge a powerful “us” and engage in a leadership of service can advance the cause of freedom and justice worldwide.

Of course, Facebook cannot reduce the risks of protest. But, however violent the immediate future in the Middle East may be, the historical record of what happens when educated women participate in freedom movements suggests that those in the region who would like to maintain iron-fisted rule are finished.

Just when France began its rebellion in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had been caught up in witnessing it, wrote her manifesto for women’s liberation. After educated women in America helped fight for the abolition of slavery, they put female suffrage on the agenda. After they were told in the 1960s that “the position of women in the movement is prone”, they generated “second wave” feminism – a movement born of women’s new skills and old frustrations.

Time and again, once women have fought the other battles for the freedom of their day, they have moved on to advocate for their own rights. And, since feminism is simply a logical extension of democracy, the Middle East’s despots are facing a situation in which it will be almost impossible to force these awakened women to stop their fight for freedom – their own and that of their communities.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

This article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.



Originally Published by Sawt Al Niswa, February 14, 2011

By Maggie Abikhadra

In two short weeks, the world has witnessed, through Egypt, a historical event few were prepared for. What would have been a repressed movement has found strength through new media outlets.


Sandy Chamoun, 2010, Cairo

Twitter has created a voice for those otherwise voiceless partisans. The agitation Egypt has witnessed proved to the world that the Middle East is not home to only sectarian movements. Christians and Muslims stood side by side against a regime that has long stopped providing services to its citizens. They protected one another during praying rituals. They prayed next to each other each in their own way using their own words.

These revolutionaries not only provided us with a picture of unity and acceptance. The beautiful vision they offered us was one of equality among genders. Men and women from all ethnicities and confessions stood next to one another in prayer and rebellion against an injustice long endured.

This scene of unity between women and men brought high hopes to a segment of society that are normally considered second class citizens. The inequalities between genders have been pressing issues in the patriarchal society of Egypt.

Rumors resonated from Tahrir Square of women being subject to sexual harassment during the uprising that Egypt has witnessed in the last couple of weeks. These claims were quickly denied. Not one voice corroborated these allegations. In a country were women are constantly subjected to sexual harassment, the avowal of these claims have been a major victory in its own way. After years of being treated as second class citizens and considered inferior to men, women have been finally and justly deemed equals.

This small intonation of genders together highlighted the gap that women have long endured on a daily basis at the hand of patriarchy. Although some outdated laws had been rectified by new ones, the application of these laws has not attained all classes and all regions. The gradual progress in the implementation of the Convention of 1981 on the ‘elimination of all forms of discrimination against women’ Egypt has ratified, has been slow.

The lack of education in rural Egypt made them obsolete in the eyes of its citizens. Some practices are still carried out such as the horrendous female circumcision. Although the butchering of young girls and women was made illegal since the amendment of the law in 1996 by a decree from the Ministry of Interior deeming the practice under the penal code punishable. But young girls and even adults are still enduring such torturous afflictions. Women are still lacking most rights their counterparts enjoy. The law that supposedly protects any victim provides unjust solace to the perpetuator in crime of abduction and sexual violence by exemption of the offender if he marries his victim under the article 291 of the Penal Code. The basic right of any victim is to be protected by the law, yet these discriminatory laws victimize the innocent. These condemnations extend to the basic rights of women. Under the 2003 Unified Labor Law No. 12. Women have access to longer maternity leave under Article 91. Yet this law provides exemption that is unjust in accordance to the convention Egypt signed in 1981. The difference in wages and salary, the economical requirements of the private sector and their own circumstances compel underage girls to work longer hours than is legally stated for salaries below minimum wages. The gap extends to all aspects of a woman’s life: her rights in case of divorce, her right to grant her children the Egyptian nationality, have long been an endurance to these mothers. Some children have found themselves deprived of their right to education as stated by the chart of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Child’ that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10th, 1959. In accordance with the Egyptian law in granting and renewing the residency to children of Egyptian woman, the procedure and the cost have proved to be an unbearable financial and administrative endurance.

Although, the law was amended in October 2003 and Egyptian women married to non-Egyptian men could finally grant their children their nationality, not all concerned were privileged to benefit from this law. The ratio of 33 percent, by far the largest group, represent women married to Palestinians. They were excluded using a basis of 1957 resolution by the Arab League not to grant Palestinians citizenship in order to preserve the Palestinian identity. Yet the law included in its final draft this portion. Despite the advancement in their fight, under the law regulating the police (109 of 190071, 91 of 1975, 92 of 1975, 93 of 1975) and the army (69 of1980, 123 of 1981), it does not permit children of non-Egyptian fathers to join these two national institutions.

The inequalities between genders remains too great. Their fight to combat this repression remains great. The rate of illiteracy among women is still high and the changes should start with providing education. The provision of jobs adequate to their pedagogic level is also to be taken in consideration. The road is still long to cover all the aspects that require a long awaited change. It will be a slow one, yet Egypt remains one of the most liberal countries in the middle east. To women, though true change is overdue, it is only a delay in acquiring their full rights as equal citizens.



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