Global rally for Arab women

2013-03-26 22:21
Moroccan delegates of the World Social Forum take part in a demonstration on the opening day of the forum in Tunis. (Hassene Dridi, AP)

Moroccan delegates of the World Social Forum take part in a demonstration on the opening day of the forum in Tunis. (Hassene Dridi, AP)

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2013-03-08 12:46

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Tunis - The condition of women, particularly in the countries that led the Arab Spring, took centre stage on Tuesday on the first day of an annual mass gathering of anti-capitalists in Tunisia.

This year marks the first time the World Social Forum is being held in an Arab country and comes amid mounting questions over the commitment to gender equality of the Islamist-led governments that came to power in the region's revolutions.

"Down with [President] Mohammed Morsi. Down with the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood," a group of activists from Egypt chanted as the forum got underway at El Manar university in Tunis with a performance from two Tunisian traditional singers about refusing the diktats of men.

In the home of the Arab Spring, women have the same status as men under a law dating back over half a century.

A proposal last year by the ruling Islamist party Ennahda to weaken that law by making women "complementary" to men in a new constitution was quickly rebuffed.

But two years after the revolutions that ousted long serving dictators, there is growing unease among women's groups.

Faced with the growing assertiveness of ultraconservative Salafi Muslims, the increasing numbers of women wearing full-body veils and ambivalent remarks about equal rights from politicians, women in both Tunisia and Egypt have returned to the barricades.

On Tuesday, trade union members and "alter globalisation" activists from around the world rallied to their side.

In a statement the forum warned against "all forms of fundamentalism which wants to take over and control our bodies."

Naked

Gina Primrose Namui, a community worker from Papua New Guinea who came dressed in a red turban and a gown emblazoned with her country's trademark bird of paradise, said she had come to compare notes on the status of women.

"In my community [in rural Indonesia] men expect women to do all the work while they sit at home. It's been a real eye-opener to come here," the 25-year-old activist told dpa.

Beya Hassine, a final-year Tunisian engineering student was also keen to swap stories with other women and counter what she called the alarmist view of Tunisia being propagated abroad.

"Tunisian women are very free. They can do what they want, study what they want, wear what they want. If they wants to wear the headscarf they can. If they want to go naked they can too," Hassine, who wore a blue headscarf pinned under her chin, said laughing.

Her remark about women going naked was a reference to the Tunisian chapter of the topless Ukrainian feminist group, Femen, whose website was hacked last week by an Islamist activist.

The affair crystallized the growing chasm between secularists and religious conservatives in Tunisia, which is still reeling from the assassination two months ago of Chokri Belaid, an opposition leader who defended the separation of religion and state.

Belaid's death prompted days of anti-government riots.

"It's a vision of society we're fighting," Belaid's widow Basma Khalfaoui told dpa in an interview late on Monday.

"We have to choose between a progressive society based on freedom or another project that is retrograde and, which I would call, a dark vision for society, where everything is haram [forbidden]."

But for Wadji Borgi, a trendily dishevelled 22-year-old psychology student, all Tunisians, veiled or not, are contributing to the emergence of a new identity.

"We cannot standardise societies," he argued. "Banning a person from displaying their individual culture kills a country."

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