Women in Damascus, Photo: Trilli Bagus
February 18th to 20th, Syrian activists and members of the country’s opposition met in Stockholm for a three days conference to discuss ”Women’s Influence and Participation in a Post-Authoritarian Syria.”
Issues like gender quota, human rights, the constitution, peace and reconciliation, psychosocial support and women’s empowerment were among the discussed topics. The conference resulted in the foundation of The Syrian Women’s Network, as the participants decided to work closely together in the future.
Organized work for women’s rights might be essential to break the pattern women experienced in the Arab spring countries: To be an equal part of the revolution, but when it comes to decisions and peace making, they find themselves excluded.
One of the conferences’ participants, a female activist from Syria who wanted to remain anonymous for safety reasons, shared her experiences of equality in decision processes at the beginning of the revolution and that this changed as the protests shifted to armed conflicts. Now women are the ones suffering the most under the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe and she was worried whether women will be able to overcome the devastating effects of war and violence and find the power to get actively involved in politics.
Now might be a good moment to start to shape the role women can have in a future Syria, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for negotiation talks on February 20th, after a meeting between Russia and the Arab League. Sitting down at a negotiating table is the only way to end the conflict without irreparable damage to Syria, he said. “Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it is a road to nowhere.”
Hopefully, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which urges the inclusion of women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations, will be attended and women will sit at this negotiation table as well. This would increase the chance of lasting peace and might also be a possibility to address the question of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Until now, in only three ceasefires in the world sexual violence was ever mentioned.
Women continue to protest on Tahrir Square despite increased violence. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Saba Nowzari
At least 25 women were sexually assaulted or harassed during the Egyptian’s protests against the continuing injustice on the second anniversary of the revolution on January 25. The assaults are believed to be organized to prevent women from participating in the democratization process. ”Ironically enough, the revolution has led to a sharp cut-back of women’s rights in the country”, says Saba Nowzari, the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s field representative in Egypt.
Violent protests flared up in several Egyptian cities at the revolution’s two-year anniversary that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. About 50 people have died and at least 1300 people were injured. President Muhammad Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in three cities, a ban which has mostly been ignored.
Women’s rights organizations in Egypt have reported sexual assaults and harassment of about 25 women in Tahrir Square and its vicinity only during the anniversary.
According to Saba Nowzari, many claim that the attacks against women are organized, even though it is yet unclear who lies behind the assaults. The opposition party National Salvation Front (NSF) blames President Morsi according to the newspaper Ahram Online.
Several civil society groups tried to help the victims by patrolling on Tahrir Square. The volunteers encountered though different kinds of harassment themselves. A woman from Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment told the Guardian how she was surrounded by men who were touching and groping her while she was a part of a rescue team trying to help another woman.
Tahrir Bodyguard has now started to teach self-defense classes for women and on February 12 there will be a demonstration against women’s sexual harassment in front of Egyptian Embassies around the world. Women living outside the capital are in an even more difficult situation, as the organized women’s movement mainly works in Cairo. Their exposure to sexual violence remains thus undocumented.
The protests, which started on January 25, are mostly about frustration in wide parts of the Egyptian public. Continuing injustice, the dwindling economy and the police’s use of excessive violence against civilians, causing many casualties which nobody is hold accountable for, has led to strong dissatisfaction and massive protests, especially in Port Said, where the death toll was highest.
“There is an enormous frustration in the country about the lack of action against violence”, says Saba Nowzari.
People are also upset about the Muslim Brotherhood’s power-amassment, which has become apparent in different ways. Liberal and secular politicians in the committee drafting the new constitution left the committee in protest against the Muslim Brotherhood’s overrepresentation and their refusal to take other group’s demands for freedom and more rights into consideration. Even though the people voted for the new constitution, it has rather led to more political instability in the country, according to Saba Nowzari.
The new constitution is not a benefit for Egyptian women. Already when the constitution draft was leaked at the end of 2012, Egyptian women’s organizations warned that an adoption of the new constitution could mean a change for the worse for women’s rights.
The constitution is now approved, in spite of deep disagreement, lowering minimum marriage age for girls to 14 and making it possible to sell girls for sex without getting punished. The constitution contains no article that mentions women’s rights, as the proposed section about gender equality has been omitted, which opens the door for women’s discrimination.
The new constitution makes it also more difficult for women to make a career in the political arena. At the eve of the revolution a female quota bill for parliament was passed. This bill has now been annulled, so there’s no demand for the parties anymore to include women in their lists. Egypt is already one of the countries with the lowest percentage of women in parliament. Women represented 1, 8 percent of the now dissolved parliament.
”There is a deliberate discrimination going on of women in politics and their possibility to participate in decision-making processes,” says Saba Nowzari.
At the same time the women’s movement has never been that visible. Women’s organizations have never before been so good at getting their message out, and the situation of Egyptian women made a lot of headlines. Those groups who are fighting against sexual harassment are focusing now on opinion making and to get the government to act against the assaults.
Their work is aggravated by the lack of resources to coordinate their activities and to take care of all victims. Moreover, female activists encounter huge resistance. Threat and violence, often sexually tinged, is used to silence and scare women and to work against their political participation.
Text: Pavlina Ekdahl | Karin Råghall
Translation: Katharina Andersen
Mallika Dutt. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Karin Raghall
Ringing a doorbell can save women from violence, at least momentarily. To bring about a sustainable solution to end violence against women worldwide, men need to be included in the process. “Male violence can only change when men change,” said Mallika Dutt, Indian-American social entrepreneur and human rights activist, during her visit to Sweden.
After thirty years of experience in the field of human rights and cultural change, she expressed her surprise and delight about the great number of young people protesting in India and globally against gender violence and gang rapes, following the rape and death of the Indian 23-year-old student in December. In her opinion it is the very first time that even many young men are joining in the protests. “What do we do with this important moment in history?” she asks.
Through the work with Breakthrough she tries to answer her own question. Breakthrough is a global human rights organization, founded by Mallika Dutt, that uses the power of media, pop culture and community mobilization to promote human rights values and to bring about change and empowerment.
Breakthrough’s campaign ”Ring the bell” aims at men, working for changing the way millions of men in India think about and respond to domestic violence. It urges neighbors and passersby to take a stand against physical abuse through simple acts – like ringing the doorbell.
The campaign has been adapted to other countries and on March 8, the next phase will be launched: One million men. One million promises. Men and boys around the world are called to promise to take concrete action to address, challenge, and end violence against women.
According to Mallika Dutt, it is time to talk about the connection between male violence and the underlying patriarchic culture and masculinity narratives, as the women’s right movement matures. “It is time to bring men at the table as allies, not only to focus on the situation after occurred violence, but on violence prevention,” she says. She believes the world is close to a tipping point concerning gender violence, and regards it as important to use the current focus and collective energy to generate a global shift in norms.
Some of the demonstrating men in India were wearing high heels – to show their solidarity, to express that they can imagine how it must feel to be a women in a misogynistic culture. A global shift in norms might teach more men to walk in women’s shoes.
Katharina Andersen | Afrah Nasser
Lena Ag, the Secretary General of the Swedish women’s rights and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, made this blog post available for Equal Power – Lasting Peace.
Last weekend, Egypt saw again violent demonstrations against the new regime. Instead of celebrating the revolution’s second anniversary, the Egyptians took the streets in mass protests against president Morsi’s administration.
Preparing for the demonstrations, local women’s rights organizations like Fouada Watch and Tahrir Bodyguard, searched via Twitter for male volunteers to help to protect demonstrating women. A little over the top? Hardly, considering what happens to female activists who raise their voices.
During the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011, which led to Mubarak’s fall, the square was for a short while a sexual harassment-free zone for women. This free zone doesn’t exist anymore. On the contrary, assault and sexual harassment of women and young girls have instead been systematized, as many reports showed during the weekend.
Our partner organization Nazra for feminist studiespublished an account from a very courageous woman who was harassed by the mob on Tahrir Square last November. She wanted to tell what had happened to her and felt sorrow and grief when she heard that the assaults unabatedly continued. It is a harrowing read.
She described how she was surrounded by a thick wall of men, ”There was no way out.” She felt how hundreds of hands stripped her naked and then the same hands started sexual attacks: “They said that they wanted to help me, but all I felt was the finger-rape, from the front and from the back; someone was even trying to kiss me… Every time I cried for help, they increased their violence and assaults.” Finally, one of the men she beseeched for help had pity on her. He suddenly took his belt and started to beat everybody around him while screaming: “I will protect her.” “I don’t know how I managed to appeal to his conscience, but then I could crawl to the field hospital and get help.”
Fouada Watch and Tahrir Bodyguard tweeted about their opinion that violence against women in the demonstrations aims to restrict women’s access to public space. Men forming physical circles of violence around women, which are impossible to escape from, have found a method they think will be effective to keep women from participating in politics and from being visible in public spaces.
But this must not happen! And it seems as if our partner organizations are not intimidated. In this question, they even have many men on their side.
That’s why it feels so encouraging to read the conclusion of the testimony: “I decided to write my testimony, so that everyone who bury his head in the sand will know that what is happening is a terrible crime that may happen to your mother, sister, daughter, friend or girlfriend. […] We will not be frightened; we will not hide in our homes!”
Translation: Katharina Andersen
Women’s rights activists in Egypt are concerned about the proposed new constitution of Egypt. They fear that it will contribute to a negative development for women in the country. But some find hope in the recent mass protests bring hope.
Azza Kamel, chairperson for ACT, in the Tahrir square in 2011. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Lena Wallquist.
29th of November the Egyptian constituent assembly presented a new draft constitution. Now there is talk of a possible referendum on 15 December.
Azza Kamel, president of ACT (Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development) in Egypt describes the current situation as very serious, since there is a dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties. According to Azza Kamel there is a fear that those who have demonstrated in support of the removal of the constitutional declaration will be jailed.
Decree for increased power
22th of November the Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, issued a decree that gives him almost unlimited power until a new constitution is in place. This lead to renewed protests taking place in the Tahrir Square in Cairo. The decree states that the President’s decision can not be appealed or overruled by any other instance. President Morsi also extended the time limit for the constituent assembly’s work with drawing up the new constitution by two months. He described these measures as temporary and necessary for building a democracy.
There is a suspicion among democracy activists and human rights organizations in Cairo that the decree was an attempt by the President to prevent a dissolution of the constituent assembly. There is also a concern that Mohammed Morsi is trying to push through a new constitution with strong Islamistic elements.
Put terms on equlity
Women’s rights activists are particularly worried. According to parts of the draft constitution, that were leaked in the beginning of October, early marriages and female genital mutilation will be decriminalized and human trafficking will not be criminalized in full. The draft constitution’s Article 36, also states that the State can ensure equality between men and women, as long as it does not conflict with Islamic Shari’a. Putting terms on equality suggests that the constitution won’t promote or protect women’s rights in full, which is seen as a significant setback for Egyptian women.
– If the President does not withdraw this constitution, it will have a negative impact on women’s rights, says Azza Kamel.
Azza Kamel points out that the new draft constitution contains no rights for the Egyptian women and that laws may be enacted to restrict and affect women’s freedom and status. This would also entail restrictions on Egyptian women’s freedom of movement. But Azza Kamel sees hope for Egyptian women in this new wave of protests.
Largest protest against President Morsi
During the past week’s mass protests against President Morsi’s decree opposition groups have re-united against the government. Around 200 000 people took part in demonstrations in the Tahrir Square on Tuesday, making it the largest protest so far against President Morsi.
– The protests show that Egyptians do not accept dictatorship, they are not afraid. They can fill up the squares, without the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation, says Hoda Badran, from the Alliance of Arab Women.
Different groups united
Hoda Badran explains that this is the first time that women’s groups, political parties, trade unions and other groups are uniting against unacceptable declarations from the President. She believes that the protests reflect the women’s movement in a positive way, as participants.
According to Hoda Badran, several male leaders have acknowledge the rights of women, and now consider women as partners in the transition towards democracy.
Both men and women joined in the demonstrations for gender equality. This woman is holding a sign saying "Man without woman = 0 Man=Woman". Photo: Felix Husa.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Tunis yesterday, to celebrate the National Day of Tunisian Women by protesting a proposed change in the country’s constitution. According to the new draft, women’s rights of citizenship should no longer be based on equality. Instead it would be seen as “complementarity to man within the family and as an associate of man in the development of the country”.
Tunisia’s Minister of Interior, Ali Larayedh, had a few days earlier told the Tunisian radio program Mosaique FM that no marches or demonstrations would be allowed on August 13th. Later though this was changed to only apply to Tunis’s central avenue, Habib Bourguiba.
Fear first step to diminish women’s rights
The National Day of Tunisian Woman is celebrated on the anniversary of the Tunisian Personal Status Code that came into force in 1956. It was the first of its kind in the Arab world, abolished polygami and instituted both judicial divorce and civil marriage.
Although the proposed new article in the constitution wouldn’t change any of these principles, many women and activists fear that it’s a first step on the road to diminishing women’s rights in Tunisia, reports The Muslim News.
Protests on the streets
An Internet petition stressing that women, who “are citizens just like men, should not be defined in terms of men” has so far been signed by over 8 000 people. And in two big demonstrations in the capital Tunis yesterday evening (one of them defying the ban on gathering at Habib Bourguiba), thousands of Tunisians requested a withdrawal of the proposed article. The new writing has already been adopted by the parliamentary committee of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA), but it still needs to be ratified at a plenary session of the interim parliament.
The National Constituent Assembly was elected last year after the downfall of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and it’s currently working on a new constitution for Tunisia.
The situation in northern Lebanon has made a turn for the worse during the last couple of weeks, after several outbreaks of violence in connection with the civil war in Syria. In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, the military presence has increased and there are significantly more weapons in circulation. But there are also people trying to stop the violence.
The escalating conflict in Syria is clearly noticeable in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Violence has broken out in the city on several occasions during the last couple of months, resulting in several deaths and injuries. In addition, many Syrians have fled across the border into northern Lebanon.
Tripoli is situated just 150 kilometers from the Syrian capital of Damascus. When civil unrest breaks out in one of the two countries, it often influences the other.
Supporters on different sides
Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström is working for the Swedish women- and peace-organization “The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation” in Lebanon. According to her, there are several ways you can interpret the recent unrest in northern Lebanon.
- There are families living on either side of the borders – some support the revolution, while others support the regime in Syria – and this creates unrest. Others argue that it is the Salafists, an ultra-orthodox Islamic movement that takes the earliest Muslims as model examples of Islamic practice, who are trying to deliberately create disorder as a way of trying to take control of the region, she says.
Salafists worse for women
One person who is worried that the Salafis will gain a greater influence in the region is Lina Abou-Habib from the women’s organization Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action (CTRDA). The Salafis have access to money and weapons via Saudi Arabia and Qatar and, according to Lina Abou-Habib, both these countries are trying to worsen the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
- A take-over by the Salafists would be the worst scenario possible for women, and for people at large, says Lina Abou-Habib.
According to several Lebanese women’s organizations, conservative religious leaders have gotten more influential in the region in recent years. The conservatives are now highlighting the abuses committed by the Syrian regime and calls on people to support them instead.
Had to close office
Although the conflict in Syria has not yet had an effect on everyday life in Lebanon to any greater extent, however most people are expecting the unrest to return. The Lebanese Council to Resist Violence against Women (LECORVAW) in Tripoli is working to support abused women and has also, together with other organizations, been assisting Syrian women, who fled to Lebanon, with counseling and medical care. LECORVAW has had to close its office several times during the latest outbursts of violence. The office is located near an area where there have been bombings and fights between snipers.
- People are worried that an armed conflict is going to flare up again. If the politicians and leaders in Lebanon do not take strong action to prevent these types of conflicts, we fear the worst will happen, says Michel Daia from LECORVAW.
According to Michel Daia, all Lebanese in northern Lebanon are affected by the growing tensions, but the young are particularly vulnerable. It’s harder for them to find jobs and they are forced to relocate to other areas or countries.
Protests against violence
LECORVAW along with several other organizations, have been demonstrating against armed conflicts.
- There are people who are trying to fight the cycle of violence, for example by pulling together peace demonstrations, saying: “We do not want your conflict, we want peace.” Actions like that give hope, says Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström.
For the first time Lebanese and Palestinian women’s organizations have joined forces for women’s rights in Lebanon. In a two-phase demonstration, on the 8th and 25th of March, they protested in Beirut with the watchword “Towards the achievement of full equality and citizenship for women”.
Demonstration on the stairs of the National Museum in Beirut, Lebanon, 8th of March. Photo: Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström/The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.
- We have planned these demonstrations since the beginning of the year. It was the first time that so many civil society actors and NGOs agreed to integrate other women’s rights demand, such as the rights of Palestinian refugee women, into a Lebanese women’s action, says Leila el Ali from the women’s rights organization Najdeh.
The demonstration on the 8th of March took place on the stairs of the National Museum in Beirut. Around 25 NGOs working for women’s and human rights gathered, and although the majority of the protesters were women, there were also men participating. The organizations had put together a 10-point list with actions necessary to meet their demand of full equality:
- Personal status civil law
- Women’s right to pass on the citizenship to her children and family
- Criminalization of violence against women and girls
- Women’s quota in the Lebanese parliament
- Reform of the electoral law
- Civil and human rights for Palestinian women in Lebanon
- The protection of women and promotion of their right in decision making
- Elimination of discrimination against women in the Lebanese Penal Code
- Gender equality in labour law and social security
- Gender equality in the tax system
Many Palestinian women from camps
On the second demonstration, the 25th of March, the protesters marched from Beirut’s Barbir area toward the Grand Serail in downtown Beirut. And this time even more people joined.
- Over 1 000 persons participated and half of them were Palestinian women from the camps, says Leila el Ali.
The action also recieved supporting letters and statements from other women activists and NGOs in the Arab world. Even Lebanon’s First Lady, Mrs Wafaa Sleiman, sent a statement supporting the protesters’ demands.