Business unusual in Middle East

2011-03-19 13:49

Who could forget the sight of the brave women of Tahrir Square?

They wore veils and burqas, jeans and T-shirts, they were old and young, a seamless parade of articulate, passionate and committed women, cooking through the long nights, building barricades and bringing their children along so they too could witness history.

Young women unafraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with young men in public – perhaps for the first time in their lives – and articulating so calmly and courageously why they were there and what they wanted from their revolution.

Salwa Bugaighis, a Libyan lawyer and activist, worked behind the scenes at Tahrir Square, talking with worried fathers whose sons are fighting in the rebel forces, keeping up with casualty figures, and organising hospital supplies and meetings to keep the revolution going.

“Maybe we will die. ­History will not die,” she said.

Statistics on gender and media show that women’s voices are not being used and there is a long way to go to gender-sensitise our ­media. The Arab uprising and the incredible women who were part of it have turned perceptions upside down.

Something has changed on the ground and in the major ­networks.

The stereotypes about submissive, quiet Muslim women have been completely blown away in the past two months.

Even on Facebook and blogs, the sheer number of women commentating, analysing and organising for change in the Middle East has been phenomenal.

The new social media with its lack of hierarchies and no bullying male voices trying to shut them up or drown them out seems to suit the style of these young women.

The gendered nature of the struggle in the Middle East is unique.

It is a women’s revolution as much as anything else.

Their struggle for gender equity and transformation is not a diversion from the “main struggle” but is indivisible from it. Men and women have shared the same objectives, and respected each other’s aspirations and priorities.

It’s business unusual in the ­Middle East.

But a note of caution: We’ve reached this stage of struggle for gender transformation in southern Africa many times before in the liberation wars in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa, and more recently in post-colonial struggles in countries such as the DRC, Malawi and Madagascar.

Gender transformation has ­sadly always been left out in the victory.

The gap between rhetoric about gender equity and the subsequent lack of action once liberation movements have gained power has been too wide to bridge.

Women have repeatedly been told to defer the realisation of their own struggles for gender transformation in times of great revolutionary change – mainly by male revolutionaries and subsequent heads of state.

Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi gives a fascinating narrative of how women’s aims were sidelined in her book, For Better or Worse?

Women and ­Zanla In Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle.

She cites how “despite a background of liberation movement claims that by 1979 more than a third of its combatants were women, the gross under-representation of women in the liberation movement’s decision-making ­organs was pathetic.

“Of 28 seats on the Zanla High Command, only one was held by a woman (Sheba Tavarwisa).”

The democratic elections in February 1980 did not do much for women, she notes. For example, “out of the 57 seats Zanu-PF secured in Parliament, women won five.

These women out of a total of 80 candidates were the only women the party had fielded.”

Not much has changed.

Today all major parties field dismal numbers of women candidates and appoint fewer women ministers to cabinet than ever before. In southern ­Africa, it’s business as usual.

It remains to be seen if women in North African and the Middle East make the final push and ensure their desires for gender transformation are not left in the gutter.

It will take a massive and sustained effort to translate their street power and advocacy into a real presence in the new halls of power.

Many have benefited from ­access to new media, the power of social networking, mass education of young women in universities, and exposure to feminist and human rights – all necessary underpinnings for a vibrant democracy.

Women across southern Africa share all these with their sisters in the Middle East, but perhaps the biggest lesson is one taught by history: allowing gender transformation to be postponed for patriotic?– or any other – reasons in the heat of revolutionary fervour means they risk losing it.

The women of Tahrir Square may not forgive themselves for that loss.

» Davies is a gender activist and director of the African Fathers Initiative

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