There is no question that change is afoot in the Middle East and North Africa. In their different ways all the women on the panel – three from the region (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria) and one who has recently visited Egypt – captured the excitement, energy, thirst for change and hopes of women throughout the region.
But Ben Ali and Mubarak had barely left power before women were again facing marginalization. To be clear, women took to the streets to demand freedom, dignity and justice. There was nothing abstract about this demand. Women suffered under the repressive rule of Ben Ali and Mubarak – just as they continue to suffer in Libya, Iran, Yemen, and Bahrain etc. Sometime they are targeted because they are fighting against the abuses of the government. Sometimes they are targeted because of their sons, brothers, husbands or fathers. Sometimes they are targeted simply for being women.
But now – with the possibility of real change – the threat of being yet again marginalized looms over women. The exclusion is real – a Constitutional Committee convened in Egypt with no women as members; a proposed law that would required the president’s wife to be Egyptian – absolutely assuming that all presidential candidates would be men are but two examples. But the threat to women’s dream of human rights and gender equality also takes cruder and crueller forms: the arrest and virginity testing of young women demonstrating in Tahrir Square. Not only did the general who justified these test explain, these girls are “not our daughters” but also said that if they did not “pass” this absurd test they would be charged with prostitution.
In Tunisia, decades of repression means that women activists – as well as other activists – were attacked when they tried to build strong, independent organizations. As the foundation of the Ben Ali’s rule is dismantled, huge questions remain. Will the new government be inclusive and respect women’s rights and gender equality? Will institutions be founded on the principles of inclusiveness, respect for differences and a commitment to equality?
If commitment, integrity, courage, intelligence and seemingly boundless energy can win the day, then the women on this panel working with their colleagues are bound to succeed. But I fear that it takes more, much more, to challenge successfully the entrenched prejudices, vested interest and politics of inequality that human rights activists face in Tunisia and Egypt.
As human rights activists, gathered in Noordwijkerhout to celebrate Amnesty International’s fifty years of challenging abuses of power, we must not just sympathize with women’s rights activists throughout the region. We must support their struggles. Concretely, each of us can demand of our government that it challenge those who would replace one form of repression with another form of repression; that no government again bargains away the rights of people in Tunisia or Egypt in the name of ‘security’ or ‘convenience’; that women’s rights and gender equality never again be treated as peripheral to ‘important’ rights.
At the beginning of this panel, members of Amnesty International’s Women’s Rights Network distributed tinted glasses to the audience. They symbolize how the lens of our experiences shape what we see and what we fail to see. Too often we hear that women only need to be included in debates about women’s rights and gender equality. But no man would ever accept that he enjoyed equality if he were only invited to participate in politics to discuss the status of men.
It’s time for men in power throughout the world to take off their glasses and look at the world through the eyes of women. Unlike the blue lenses I am wearing, there may be no ‘color’ of gender blindness, but the fact that we cannot see the ‘color’ makes it no less lethal.