• Saturday, December 20, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Women’s Learning Partnership: The Arab Spring Feminist Style

    Women in the forefront of protests in Tahrir Square. Credit:Mohammed Omer/IPS

    By Wendy Harcourt*

    The Arab Spring has taken the global imagination. The Arab Spring has brought about political changes in post-revolution countries (Tunisia and Egypt), in countries currently undergoing popular, and often armed revolts (Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Libya) and in countries where some type of reform movement is taking place (Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, and to a lesser extent, Lebanon). But how did the use of ICTs, twitter and Facebook reach youth and in particular women in the MENA region? How did young people and women find the tools and spaces to speak about democracy and women’s rights, in cultures that barely recognize their social and political rights? How did they find the courage to go onto the streets in deviance of autocratic and repressive regimes?

    The role of MDG3 Funded Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) is part of the answer. WLP is a network of 18 partners working in Muslim majority countries in the Global South. It is dedicated to women’s leadership with its overall goal to empower women to transform their families, communities, and societies and to improve the effectiveness of feminist movements in Muslim-majority societies.

    Feminism is too often misunderstood as a western concept that imposes western values of individualism that leads to family and social breakdown as women defy traditional roles of wife and mother. The reality is that each region has evolved its own type of feminism reflecting and responding to the reality of the societies. Fears of feminism continue to be hard to understand when it is now evident that when women engage in economic and social public life not only their lives but their family and community lives improve considerably. In the MENA region there continues to be deep prejudice against women’s full rights to citizenship that makes the promise of the Arab Spring even more heartening.

    With the support of the MDG3 Fund WLP was one of the many actors on the ground providing viable knowledge and learning frameworks for girls and women in the MENA region. WLF workshops provided the technical knowledge and practical skills for girls and women to participate in the region’s emerging dialogue about rights, development, and peace.

 By building the capacity of women and girls to access online ‘public’ spaces WLF enables them participate in mobilization and advocacy and to diminish the marginalization and isolation of women whose mobility is restricted.

    As the Arab Spring showed to the whole world, ICTs can be for collective mobilization and advocacy purposes. WLP technology trainer’s manual called Making IT Our Own: Information & Communication Technology Training of Trainers Manual was a catalyzing tool for gender justice and human rights advocacy.

    In the MENA Region WLP have reached out to Youth and young women giving them hands on skills using new communication technologies. The first Annual Youth Tech Fest in 2009 in Amman brought together 110 young men and women from all over Jordan to use ICTs for social change. The nine-woman technology training team coached the young adults in creating their own engines of social change – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, website creation and blogging. The Tech Festival participants addressed social issues such as eliminating violence against women, increasing youth volunteering, stopping drug and child abuse, fighting sexual harassment, eradicating early marriages, preventing traffic accidents, and ending domestic violence. A second Tech Fest with the Sisterhood is Global Institute/Jordan brought together 175 young adults to use new media outlets to educate themselves and others on the upcoming elections, focusing on women’s political participation.

    WLP led campaigns for women’s leadership and rights in MENA equally illustrates just why the Arab Spring could happen. Leading to Choices is at the heart of regional campaigns for women to form egalitarian, democratic, and pluralistic societies based on collaborative decision-making, coalition-building, and gender equality. In the MENA region (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman) the manual in Shamy Arabic catalyzed a campaign led by local women against the discriminatory laws denying women equal nationality rights. In many countries in the Region women do not enjoy a direct relationship with the state, but must access their citizenship rights through mediation of a male family member, such as a father or a husband. The campaign advocates for women to participate fully in public life and to claim all rights to which they are entitled as equal members of their societies.

    In villages such as Ta’alabaya in Lebanon WLP workshops with  the local  Najdeh Association helped build women’s skills to struggle for their citizenship and rights as Lebanese women married to Palestinian men. Such local campaigns for legal reform and recognition of women as equal citizens in all areas of life are strengthened by networking throughout the Region. Similar Leading to Choices workshops were held in Beirut, Sayda, Tyre, and Bekaa in 2010.

    Claiming Equal Citizenship Campaign is part and parcel of the Arab Spring. In June 2011 in Beirut feminist organizations from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon as part of the Campaign reviewed the possibilities of the Arab Spring.
    Due to skills training by organisations like WLP throughout the Arab Spring women have been equal, and in some cases leading, participants in the revolutions. The emergence of young women’s leadership in the region, as well as the effectiveness of social media in helping to mobilize young activists has been noted by many.

    But as the Beirut meeting noted with alarm there is also the occurrence of retaliatory – and often violent – acts against women, including numerous incidents of rape and sexual harassment, reports of virginity tests (performed by the armed forces in Egypt), and a call by fundamentalist groups for women to return home and leave the public spaces for men.

    Current and upcoming constitutional reforms present a golden opportunity for women’s advocacy for upholding women’s rights and entitlements as well as equality and social justice. The dynamic work of WLP illustrates how building women’s leadership and knowledge and skills from the ground and through ICTs can build up feminist campaigns leading to real and needed political and social change. In the wake of the Arab Spring feminist solidarity in the region helped by WLP is more imperative than ever.

    * This story is part of the series Women empowering women, Inside stories of empowerment from the MDG3 Fund by prize winning feminist researcher Wendy Harcourt.

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