• Thursday, October 2, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Arab Women Lead the Charge

    By Emad Mekay
    CAIRO, Feb 11 (IPS) Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman who two
    weeks ago had only
    one name, now boasts at least three. These include "A woman worth 100
    men",
    "The girl who crushed Mubarak" and "The leader of the
    Egyptian revolution".

    Mahfouz, who began online political activism in 2008, is now credited for
    launching a video call that sparked the revolution against the autocratic
    military rule of U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak.

    Mahfouz is a member of a new lot of Arab women activists who are shedding
    their typical conservative image to lead or inspire a wave of
    pro-democracy
    protests that are reshaping the political future of several countries in
    the Arab
    world.

    Mahfouz created a YouTube.com video in mid-January
    (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgjIgMdsEuk) in which she urged "all
    young men and women" to leave their computer screens and converge on
    the
    streets of Egypt to protest the brutal and corrupt rule of the 82-year old
    Mubarak.

    "I am a woman and I am going out on Jan. 25 and am not afraid of the
    police,"
    she said a few days before the unrest broke out. "For the men who
    brag of
    their toughness, why exactly are you not joining us to go out and
    demonstrate?"

    Her message reverberated she says, "beyond the wildest of
    dreams".

    The 4 minute 30 second video was shared widely by Internet activists and
    was
    posted on many blogs and websites. Young people forwarded it on mobile
    phones – a communications tool that some 65 million Egyptians use. Soon
    after, the government blocked all mobile phone networks.

    "I had hoped Jan. 25 would gather 10,000 people at best, but I later
    realised
    after the police force withdrew and collapsed, that our day of protests
    turned
    into a popular revolution," she said on a Facebook.com page created
    for her
    by her supporters.

    "My family was so worried about me and they told me women are not
    harsh
    enough for that kind of confrontation," Mahfouz said. "They now
    tell me they
    are so proud of me. I knew that if I get scared and everybody gets scared,
    then this country will be lost for good."

    Mahfouz’s words resonated not only in Egypt, but across the region.

    "Asmaa’s words were sincere and came out of the heart,"
    wrote Reem Khalifa,
    a columnist for the Bahrain newspaper Alwasat. "Her words turned into
    a
    tsunami wrecking havoc with despotism, tyranny and injustice."

    Asmaa Mahfouz is among millions of women taking the lead during protests
    in Egypt and elsewhere in Arab countries.

    In Cairo, women with sticks and iron bars in hand were patrolling some of
    the
    streets with their male relatives during the days of looting and vandalism
    that
    swept the city after the collapse of the Egyptian police force.

    Mothers of several people who died in the initial days of the protests
    have
    refused to receive condolences or hold funeral ceremonies until the
    revolution
    achieves its main goal of ousting the regime of Mubarak.

    The mother of Khaled Said, an Internet activist who was beaten to death by
    police officers in Alexandria last year, joined the protesters in Tahrir
    and
    repeatedly urged them not to go home before Mubarak leaves office.

    Women have visibly been in the forefront in demonstrations at Tahrir
    Square
    and other places – in a society where women traditionally have taken
    a back
    seat. Many volunteered to do body searches of other women taking part in
    the protests – it had become clear that the regime could sneak in weapons
    to
    be used against the protesters.

    Across the Arab world, women have stepped into the forefront of dangerous
    anti-regime protests.

    In Tunisia, human rights leader and blogger Lina Ben Mehenni was among the
    first to get word out about the Tunisian protests early in December
    through
    her tweets and blogs – despite police threats.

    The poor mother of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young street hawker who set
    himself ablaze starting the Tunisian revolution in mid-December, was also
    doing her share, calling for change. Her sincere tears and wishes for
    justice
    galvanised hundreds of thousands of impatient Tunisians to eventually
    remove the country’s long time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The
    video of
    her tears went viral in the Arab world.

    In Yemen, another country that has seen major anti-government protests,
    young woman activist Tawakul Abdel-Salam Karman was leading the charge.

    It was 30-year-old Karman’s arrest by President Ali Abdullah
    Saleh’s regime
    that set off days of major street demonstrations that threatened his hold
    on
    power. Karman, who is now free, remains one of the country’s most
    outspoken critics of the regime.

    "The Arab world is in revolt against dictatorships," Magda Adly,
    of the El
    Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo, told
    IPS.
    "That’s why we see women, Islamist or not Islamist, veiled or
    not veiled,
    coming together and leading what’s happening on the ground. This is
    real
    equality and we’ll never go back to square one."

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