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After The Revolution, Arab Women Seek More Rights

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At the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Egypt’s port city of Alexandria, 23-year-old May Kamel found herself arguing with one of the group’s senior members.

Kamel, a journalist, had traveled to the Muslim Brotherhood’s office to ask about their upcoming political campaign. But she found herself arguing as a woman concerned for her rights.

“You need to explain to the people what you are doing. You need to explain to women what your party wants from them,” she told Sobhi Saleh, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saleh, who is currently part of a group working on constitutional reform, said he had a strong position on women’s rights.

He described a “new Egypt” — one in which Kamel would be expected to dress in conservative clothing and pray regularly. He described morality police that would “assist people” who had gone astray or had not yet “seen the truth.”

Kamel was clearly not content with his speech. She plucked at her thin, low-cut T-shirt with fingernails that she had painted jet-black. Like many women across the Arab world, Kamel had hoped that the region’s dramatic political changes, which had brought a revolution to Egypt, would address issues important to her and millions of other women.

Initial Optimism Dashed

Images of women marching alongside men in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Jordan led to predictions that women’s rights would also make huge strides forward.

She had been optimistic initially, when she celebrated President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in February. She had spent days sitting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square alongside thousands of others. She said she found the sight of men and women protesting together an inspiration.

“I think the youth that were in Tahrir ... people my age or people that were demonstrators or whatever, were OK with the concept of men and women having equal rights,” said Kamel.

“In the months that followed, the feminist honeymoon was lost,” she said.

In the six months since Mubarak was ousted, the only woman who has joined Egypt’s transitional government is a holdover from the old regime. Women are running in the upcoming presidential election, though none is expected to be a serious contender. Most telling, said Kamel, was that the women who took part in the protests in Tahrir have been increasingly painted as vagrant or “loose” women in the Egyptian press.

“They went from being heroes to being vilified,” said Kamel. A few months after the Tahrir Square protests, women hoped to assert their newly found voices in a demonstration on International Women’s Day, March 8.

Though more than 1,000 people joined a Facebook group for the event, only a few hundred ended up marching. They were quickly surrounded and harassed by men led by a sheik from Al Azhar University.

“People just gathered, each woman was standing there — she had like five men around her, and she was trying to argue. It got physically abusive after a while. The protests didn’t last for even an hour,” said Kamel.

Tunisian Women Try To Preserve Rights

Women across the Arab world were watching, including Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni. The 27-year-old, who blogs under the moniker “A Tunisian girl,” said she was saddened but not shocked at the women’s day protest in Egypt.

Ben Mhenni took part in the protests in Tunis that brought an end to the 23-year reign of Tunisian President Ben Ali on Jan. 14. Sitting in a sidewalk cafe just a few steps from where those protests took place, Ben Mhenni recalled the mood during the demonstrations.

“The good thing is that both men and women took part,” she said. “But there were groups who started to shout, ‘Your place was in the kitchen,’ ‘You don’t have to ask for more rights,’ and ‘When women have rights they abuse them.’ ”

The insults were particularly scathing, she said, because women in Tunisia have long enjoyed more freedom than elsewhere in the region: Tunisia is one of the few countries where polygamy is banned, marriage is based on consent, and abortion is legal.

Many of the new parties that have emerged in Ben Ali’s wake have presented Islamic platforms. Recently, a poll conducted by the Sigma Group predicted that Islamist parties were poised to win 30 percent of the vote in upcoming Tunisian elections.

Ben Mhenni says those parties have made themselves popular by calling for women to be banned from the workplace. They say this would solve Tunisia’s staggering unemployment among men.

“Before Jan. 14, we were asking for normal rights. Now we are trying to preserve the rights we already have,” said Ben Mhenni.

Wives Of Leaders Blamed For Corruption

In addition, several of the Islamist groups in Tunisia have published popular cartoons in which wealthy, Westernized women are linked to crooked, opulent lifestyles. Leila Trabelsi, the wife of Ben Ali, is their case in point.

“She symbolizes the evil, spoiled, corrupt woman,” said Ben Mhenni.

During the protests, Trabelsi’s image was burned in effigy, as protesters heard allegations of millions in jewels and cash she had taken from the state coffers.

Ben Mhenni called it the Marie Antoinette effect, in which the corruption and opulence of the Ben Ali regime was blamed on his wife’s bad influence.

“She let her family steal money and oppress people. When you look from outside, it appears her family stole more than his family did,” Ben Mhenni. “We always hear about the Trabelsis doing evil, but we scarcely here about Ben Ali’s family doing evil.”

Similarly, in Egypt protesters pointed fingers at presidential wife Suzanne Mubarak’s lavish lifestyle. And in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, protests took off after a letter from the eastern tribes targeted Queen Rania as an example of Western extravagance.

The protests called on Jordan’s King Abdullah to chastise his wife, whom they accused of stealing money to fund her lifestyle. The letter also suggested that the queen was trying to influence him on state affairs.

The attacks on the queen were widely supported in the industrial town of Zarqa, just north of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Zarqa’s conservative majority has become well-known in Jordan as a bastion for Islamist groups.

Hama and Muhammad Saleh, two cousins who run a stall in the dusty flea market on the outskirts of Zarqa, said Jordanians wanted a more conservative society.

“Women need to know their place in Islam, and it the man’s duty to make sure they observe it,” said Hama Saleh. He said that Queen Rania had made herself unpopular by promoting herself too quickly. She was a bad example for women in Jordan, he said, because she held herself as an example of a modern Western woman who “left her hair uncovered and wore short-sleeve cashmere shirts.”

In Jordan’s capital, Amman, journalist Lelia Hammerney has been focused on following the effects of the Arab Spring on women in Jordan and across the region.

Hammerney has a long history in women’s movements and in promoting feminists in the Arab world. She claimed that women were ready to claim greater rights, but were unsure of what they would face in the rapidly changing region.

“Young women are ready. And we are going to continue the fight. The whole idea is that there will be new types of difficulties,” she said, mentioning the upcoming elections in the region where Islamic parties are expected to make gains.

But Hammerney said she also sees reason for optimism.

In Tunisia, political parties in the elections must have equal numbers of men and women on their party lists. Women have started a protest for driving rights in Saudi Arabia. And two Palestinian women have become the first female judges in Islamic courts.

“It’s going to be difficult from now on, but the whole idea is that we are going to fight back, capitalizing on all our experiences. We are going to build new alliances among women,” said Hammerney. She added that she was hopeful, “in the long run.”

As she left her office, Hammerney stepped over a newspaper with photos of the ongoing protests in Syria. An image of a young woman flashing a victory sign at Syrian soldiers was on the cover, under the word “courage.”

Sooner or later, said Hammerney, the Arab Spring would catch up to the women who helped drive it.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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