Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Arab Women Fight to Defend their Rights

November 29, 2011

The Arab Spring seemed to herald a new era of emancipation for women in the Arab world. But Islamists are on the rise in Tunisia and Egypt, and there are worrying reports of sexual assaults on demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Many women in the region fear a rollback of what rights they had under the dictators.

She looks serious in the picture she has posted on the Internet. She is also naked, a young Egyptian woman showing her body to her country. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, a 20-year-old art student at the American University in Cairo, wanted to protest against the oppression of women and conservatism in her country. To achieve that, she did something that is almost unheard of.

"Undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups," she wrote in her blog. In a country where couples cannot kiss in public, her act came as a shock.

Since triggering a scandal two weeks ago, the Egyptian woman has had to hide from the hatred of religious conservatives, and even secular Egyptians have distanced themselves from her. They don't want to be associated with her act, and they are afraid of being characterized as worldly, licentious and immoral.

There is much at stake at the moment for Egypt's young people, who are protesting once again on Tahrir Square, this time against military control of the country, as if the revolution of January and February had never happened. It is no longer merely a question of whether the country will achieve the transition to democracy, but also of what kind of society Egypt wants and what the status of women will be in that society.

There have been numerous reports within the last week of sexual assaults on women at Tahrir Square, assaults involving both security forces and protesters. The Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, who had taken part in the protests on the square, was held for hours while blindfolded. Policemen groped her and broke one of her arms and a hand. "(They) groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers," she wrote on Twitter. "They are dogs and their bosses are dogs."