ast October, I attended a hugely productive discussion on women in the Arab revolutions at the 'Women's Forum for the Economy and Society' in Normandy. Over a thousand delegates listened, enraptured by spirited activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi gave the keynote speech on the future of Arab women. She posed some very searching questions on the veracity and longevity of any gains for women in hotspots where dictators have been ousted and democratic elections are finally taking place.
It is more than likely that these issues will have played on Cairo-based activist Samira Ibrahim's mind, as she awaits the verdict of the Egyptian State Council in a landmark case. Ibrahim was among 17 girls who were detained on 9th March 2011 during revolutionary protests in Tahrir Square. She has alleged that as well as being 'beaten, electrocuted, and forced to strip naked in front of male officers,' she had to undergo a 'virginity test.' The Supreme Council of Armed Forces maintains that the military 'did no such thing,' while simultaneously informing Human Rights Watch that they 'ordered an end to these virginity tests.' The detention of women at the hands of the military is nothing new, but as Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef confirms, the virginity tests were 'unprecedented.' Even US passport-holders are not immune to gender-based violence in custody.
There was widespread concern about New York-based journalist Mona Eltahawy, who recently tweeted about her ordeal after she was arrested by security forces in Cairo. In the early hours of 24th November 2011, Eltahawy wrote, '12 hours with Interior Ministry bastards and military intelligence combined. Can barely type must go x-ray arms after CSF pigs beat me.' This was followed by; '5 or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count of how many hands tried to get into my trousers.' While Eltahawy was released within 24 hours, the misogyny that female activists face is as raw as ever.
The blogger Aliaa Magda el-Mahdy attempted to protest against this treatment when she recently posted a nude picture of herself on her blog. She gained 1.5 million hits over the course of a week, with her actions sparking an outcry from Egyptian conser- vatives, and some liberals. El-Mahdy's actions played right into the hands of those who seek to stifle women's empowerment. The timing was precarious, falling just before Egypt's first general election since the over- throw of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Members of conservative movements in Egypt had already warned voters that liberals will 'corrupt Egypt's morals.' Sayyed el-Qimni, a prominent secular activist, noted: 'This hurts the entire secular current in front of those calling themselves the people of virtue.' In any case, there are more innovative ways to raise awareness.
There is a tranche of female activists across the Middle East who are using their intellect rather than their bodies to make waves. It is these women who deserve to be festooned with praise, although they are usually the same individuals who have been chipping away at the edifice of misogyny for many years, eschewing excessive publicity. Women like Nawal el-Saadawi, the 80-year-old Egyptian psychiatrist-turned-writer who has campaigned against female genital mutilation for most of her adult life. Or human rights activist and former Egyptian Minister for Family and Population Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, who spoke at the afore-mentioned 'Women's Forum on the Economy and Society.' Khattab has been one of the key reformers on women's rights in Egypt, lobbying for a ban on female genital mutilation and raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, as well as giving women the right to initiate a divorce (which was entrenched by the Qu'ran in the first place). These amendments were referred to as 'Suzanne's laws' after Hosni Mubarak's wife of the same name.
Now that Mubarak has been ousted, certain campaign groups have intimated that these laws should be repealed. This begs the question: why should the safeguarding of equal rights be at the mercy of political whims, either preceding a revolution or after it? It is an issue that Farkhonda Hassan, the former secretary-general of the National Council for Women (NCW), has grappled with. She observed that women in Egypt were, quite often, victims of injustice. But when we give them their rights, people say that the laws have ruined Egyptian families, which is nonsense and absurd.
Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi was keenly aware of this political landscape when she addressed us on a sunny Thursday morning in Deauville. Ms Ebadi cited the Iranian revolution of 1979 as a cautionary tale. Female participants knew that they wanted to see the end of a dictatorship, but it was taken for granted that crucial women's rights could be won later, like bonus tokens spilling out of a fruit machine.
Many women do not have the luxury of making such assumptions, and consequently Ms Ebadi advised activists to push for women's rights while the uprisings were taking place. She warned, Don't wait for the victory. Choose your allies. Dictate these conditions before the alliance. The other danger is women's participation being used as a democratic façade, and of changes being made for purely cosmetic reasons. The systemic nature of the discrimination that women face and the amount of work that needs to be done was highlighted in the World Economic Forum's 'Global Gender Gap' Report.
This is a survey that measures opportunity for women in education, health, business and politics. Out of 134 countries surveyed, 14 of the Arab countries were ranked in the bottom 30. While the uprisings have not been driven by a feminist agenda per se, it is crucial that women seize them as an opportunity to advance their own rights, and make clear that these are crucial to the development of wider society.
Tehmina Kazi is director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, an organisation which aims to raise awareness of the benefits of democracy and its contribution to a shared vision of citizenship. She is also a trustee of Searchlight Educational Trust.