The Arab Woman You Don't See

Too many still equate the soundbites describing women under Taliban rule with the teachings of our faith throughout the Muslim world. But the oppression of women in parts of the Muslim world is not because of Islam, but contrary to it.
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Throughout the extraordinary events of the last few months, across the Middle East and North Africa, long-silenced voices demanding change are being heard worldwide -- and stalwart among them are the voices of women. From the bereaved mother of the first tragic Tunisian protester, to Asmaa Mahfouz, the 26-year-old whose YouTube video brought Egyptians into the streets, to Sally Zahran, a passionate 23-year-old Egyptian woman who was bludgeoned to death on January 28, to Tawakul Abdel-Salam Karman, the activist whose arrest sparked demonstrations in Yemen and countless others, women have joined with men in peaceful protest, braving beatings, rubber bullets, and worse. In Egypt, considered the birthplace of Arab feminism in the 1920s, an estimated quarter of the million protesters at the height of the demonstration were female. In all the pictures from the protest, none was as powerful as that of the woman standing face to face with an Egyptian soldier in a pose of utmost defiance. One young female protester stated, "There are no differences between men and women here. We are all one hand." In more conservative cultures such as Bahrain and Yemen, fewer women have demonstrated, but for that very reason their presence is perhaps even more significant.

This should come as no surprise. Women are consummate peacemakers, and civil protest has always been one of their most powerful tools of expression.

I have been privileged to work with numerous networks of courageous women who have suffered the worst consequences of war, conflict and discrimination; in Jordan and Palestine, in Israel, in Colombia, in Central Asia, in Africa and the Balkans, raising their voices and joining forces for change.

Many countries that are struggling to recover from harrowing civil war, including Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Chile, Bosnia, and Liberia, have turned to women leaders for stability, security and peace. After the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi women joined together to support each other and the war's victims and to lead the search for truth and reconciliation as official members of government.

In Liberia, I have witnessed the inspiring force of the market women who, throughout 16 years of civil war, sustained their families, saved lives and kept food supplies flowing while they marched and successfully negotiated for peace and, then ensured the election of Africa's first woman president. And, in the former Yugoslavia, the site of the worst carnage in Europe since World War II, I have sat and wept with Bosnian, Serb and Croatian women as they struggled to come to terms with the deaths of their husbands, sons and fathers -- killed, in some cases, by the husbands or sons of women sitting across the table.

Why such compassion to the widows of their enemies? As one woman put it simply, "We are all mothers." They came to our meetings to search for threads of human connection amidst the chaos of conflict.

Today, women raising their voices in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are not all mothers, but they are also daughters, wives, sisters. They are fighting for their families, but they are also fighting for themselves; and in Palestine, the women of the occupied territories are fighting for the freedom to be included in the greater Palestinian struggle.

Heartening though this may be, as revolution gives way to realpolitik, women's rights are all too often the first things to be compromised on and bartered away. For example, although these protests present an unprecedented opportunity for women, some of the results are less than encouraging. In Egypt, while the protests themselves were marked by a sense of unity, it did not take long for sexual harassment to reassert itself. And women returned to protest when the Supreme Council for the Armed forces, designating a committee to amend the country's constitution, neglected to appoint a single woman.

Women's new empowerment will not be suppressed easily, however. So far, these have not been the traditional stories about women -- especially Muslim women -- that tend to show up on the news. Many do not imagine Arab and Muslim women have much in common with their counterparts in the West because of the selective, damaging and stereotypical images that the media commonly present. When I married King Hussein in 1978, reporters were constantly asking me how a progressive, educated, American woman could go live in such a repressive culture. Those reporters did not know the Arab women I did -- the doctors, lawyers, professors and entrepreneurs -- many of whom became friends and advisers as I set my priorities for public service. The dedication and ambition of the increasing numbers of such women gives great cause for optimism about their prospects for shaping the future of the region. Providing these women with opportunities for partnering with international institutions and networks can enhance that transformative potential both within their own societies and for the benefit of our larger world.

Too many in the Western world still equate the images and soundbites describing women under Taliban and restrictive rule in other countries with the teachings of our faith and conditions throughout the Muslim world. Many worry that greater democracy in the region will give reign to more restrictive interpretations of Islam and a rollback of women's rights. I think, however, that there is reason for hope for women within our faith itself.

Most westerners -- and even some in our region -- do not recognize that women were granted political, economic, legal and social rights by Islam in the 7th century -- rights then unheard of in the West; rights that women were still struggling for in the 20th century in so many parts of the world -- such as the equal right to education, to own and inherit property, to conduct business, to participate in decision making, to be elected to office and not be coerced into marriage. The oppression of women in parts of the Muslim world is not because of Islam, but contrary to it.

Male and female equality is enshrined in numerous places in Islamic scripture, such as the Quranic verse: "I waste not the labor of any that labors among you, be you male or female -- the one of you is as the other." And from the later teachings: "For the white to lord it over the black, the Arab over the non-Arab, the rich over the poor, the strong over the weak or men over women is out of place and wrong." The true application of fundamental Islamic principles can actually empower women to play a crucial role in the process of peaceful change.

As popular demands progress to political and social transition in the MENA region, it is of critical importance that the women who have played such an important role not be relegated to secondary status yet again. They must not simply be forced to exchange an old for a new set of oppressions. Any reforms must continue the progress toward full human rights for women that our region so desperately needs, not only for the women's sake. It is vital that MENA countries more urgently recognize that the status of women is the key determinant to the development of their societies. In turn, the international community can play a critical role in helping to build bridges that can further integrate women both locally and globally.

It is fitting that in Egypt, where Arab feminists first made their voices heard, women have played such an integral role, and have set something of a precedent, by courageously fighting for their unequivocal rights.

On this anniversary of International Women's Day, almost a century since those Arab feminists raised their voices, it is time for women everywhere to take their proper place beside men as equal parents of new societies born in democracy and justice.

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