As women across the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region experienced victory and discouraging setbacks with political participation and human rights for all in Egypt and Tunisia women activist leaders look back to reflect on what has gone wrong and what has gone right for the women who have pushed so very hard for change.
On the anniversary of the uprisings in Tahrir Square The Global Fund for Women, along with the Arab Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco, California (U.S.), hosted a special evening of analysis and reflection to give insight to the progress for women’s rights during the Arab revolution.
As a catalyst in the global women’s rights movement since 1987 mobilizing nearly $85 million from 20,000+ diverse individuals and institutions the Global Fund for Women has provided grants to 4,200 groups in 171 countries. In 2010 alone their efforts reached 125,000 women and girls who went on to benefit thousands of others.
Sharing insights on the women’s protest movement in the Arab Spring, the latest Global Fund grantees Nadia Sraieb-Koepp from Tunisia along with Nawla Darwiche from Egypt joined with Zeina Zaatari, Global Fund’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director to discuss the amazing progress and the setbacks that plague the activist movement in the region.
Bringing intensity and reality to the conversation about women’s progress in the region Sraieb-Koepp and Darwiche offered a valuable window into women and today’s societies in Tunisia and Egypt.
Nadia Sraieb-Koepp currently serves as a Press officer at the United Nations. She is also co-founder of Engagement Citoyen (Engagement Citizien), a non-profit organization working to create a better informed public in Tunisia. As Sraieb-Koepp recalls right after the revolution in Tunisia, one of her best friends called and said, “…we women may lose all the rights we already have.” For years Tunisia has been at the global forefront in the push for women’s rights in the region.
Perhaps one of the most important questions for women in the Arab Spring region is: Has women’s involvement in bringing change to Tunisia and Egypt been undervalued?
“The March 8th call brought a few hundred women to the streets, [which is] nowhere near a million. This was not unexpected…,” revealed Egyptian author and Cairo University professor Dr. Hoda Elsadda in her latest book published by The Global Fund, “Telling Our Stories: Women’s Voices from the Middle East and North Africa,” a collection of articles that have gone deep to describe conditions for women on-the-ground in the region.
“… it was extremely unrealistic to imagine that the first sparks of a popular revolution would bring about overnight a radical transfor- mation in cultural attitudes towards women’s rights,” Elsadda continued. In January 2012 Elsadda was recently placed on the shortlist for her outstanding depth of writing by the Arabic Booker Prize. Her efforts to portray the real life and tone of Egypt have been outstanding.
“…What came as a surprise and a real shock, however, was the marked hostility and violence unleashed against women protesters who were harassed and shouted at by groups of men who encircled them,” Elsadda outlined in her book. “Egyptian women took to the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day [last year], in response to a call that was sent out on Facebook for a million women’s march.”.
Conditions for women in Tunisia have shown promise. “After 1956, we were given almost all the rights French women had,” said Staieb-Koepp during the Global Fund for Women event. “You can have an abortion, you can divorce… [even though] there has never been a very strong movement to get these rights,” she continued.
But Sraieb-Koepp also went on to convey that she worries that if Tunisian women are not especially aware, their rights could be taken away. According to Sraieb-Koepp Islamic fundamentalists in Tunisia are now arguing one of the best ways to cope with unemployment is to “keep women at home.”
While Tunisia and Egypt have different histories, Sraieb-Koepp sees the fate of women in both countries to be very similar, “…it is basically the same experience as [in] Egypt. Women took over the civil society activism and men were drawn to politics,” she added.
But some severe backlashes have happened. “Yesterday two [Tunisian] women doctors were attacked in the hospital going to their cars. One of them was stabbed,” Sraieb-Koepp adds. “It is the kind of thing we never ever had before… This is where now it becomes tricky,” Staieb-Koepp emphasized… …people tend to get scared and intimidated and it paralyzes them to the point where nobody wants to do something anymore, that would be the worst case, if fear takes over.”
In 2010 many families in Tunisia were worried about years of rising poverty levels combined with the few jobs available going to those who already had positions of authority in the region. Food shortages and crisis extended from Egypt where an already spiraling crisis was taking place. This added hunger and hardship to the lives of those in Tunisia and in Egypt who already live at the very bottom of society.
“People want to be able to have some kind of hope for the future and to enjoy their fundamental rights,” added Sraieb-Koepp.
As rising corruption inside President’s Ben Ali’s administration spurred activism in Tunisia, many women stepped forward to share their goals to reform and improve Tunisian society.