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Spring Not New to Arab Women

Simba Russeau

CAIRO, May 18 2011 (IPS) - Women have been taking leading roles in the Arab uprisings of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Morocco and Bahrain – shattering many decades old Western myths that Arab women are powerless and enslaved.

At Tahrir Square. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS.

At Tahrir Square. Credit: Mohammed Omer/IPS.

“It’s really unfair to ignore history and to try to misinterpret the reality,” founding member of the Union for Women’s Action in Morocco, Fatima Outaleb told IPS. “Who can deny that woman who is shouting slogans and dragging men behind her, repeating her slogans? She’s a veiled woman. She’s also a leader.”

According to Outaleb, women – whether as mothers, housewives, veiled or not, from Islamist parties or with no political upbringing – have always played a pivotal role in the Arab world.

“The Western media is shaped according to certain agendas, to certain priorities they have in mind, and policies regarding Arab women. They have ignored the reality that Arab women have always been at the heart of revolutions in the region – whether leading, strategising, raising awareness or mobilising as bloggers, or on Facebook,” Outaleb said.

Egyptian women represented nearly 20 percent of the millions of activists who flocked to Tahrir Square and protests in Alexandria.

“I don’t like the fact that during our 18-day revolt the international media coverage focused only on women being sexually harassed. Women were among the martyrs, confronting security forces and sleeping in Tahrir Square,” Doaa Abdelaal, a council member of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) told IPS.

“At the grassroots level and in labour movements women have worked a long time in creating this moment,” Abdelaal said.

Since 2004, Egypt’s labour force has had nearly 3,000 strikes to challenge privatisation and policies entrenched in international lending agreements established by actors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Women have played leading roles in all these actions – demanding better economic conditions and opposing the regime.

In a country where 95 percent of the 27 incidents of rape that occur daily go unreported, where 33 percent of women face domestic violence, and where there is inequality in the workforce and increasing sexual violence, women’s civil society groups – for the past 20 years – have relentlessly dedicated their time and energy towards breaking many societal taboos.

Hibaaq Osman from Somalia, is the chief executive officer and founder of Karama, an initiative fuelled by a coalition of constituencies working to build a movement to end violence against women. She says that the Western media was shocked to see women out on the streets, raising their voices, protesting for democracy and walking side by side with men for a unified cause – political reform and equal rights.

“You have to understand the psychology of the Western media. They want to see a weak, meek and covered woman,” Osman told IPS.

According to Osman, Europe, which she says is moving towards the far right, should recognise the fact that second generation immigrants are only disconnected economically, socially and politically because they are born and raised in countries that have failed to embrace them.

“In France, it took them a day or two to come up with a law against the niqab, but how long would it take to come up with a law to support, train, give jobs and uplift economically the immigrants that live in their country?” Osman asked.

“I think it’s about time that the West take a good look at themselves because it’s easy to point the finger at the Muslim world and how women are treated when the Catholic Church is still having major problems with contraceptives and they can’t decide if a woman should have the right to her own body,” Osman says.

“We don’t care what the Western media thinks about us because we know that it’s biased,” Outaleb says. “I mean how can they overlook the role of women. They have never been absent – they’re part of the society.”

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