Women’s rebellion in the Middle East and North Africa

Day two of the Amnesty ICM kicked off with a passionate discussion about the rebellion in the Middle East and North Africa which is surely one of the most astonishing and inspiring displays of people power seen in the 50 year history of Amnesty International.

As I write this blog the news is reporting on Mubarak’s return to court in Egypt and Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian port of Latakia has entered its third day. The port city has been shelled by the Syrian Navy and reports suggest that residents trying to flee the Ramel district, including women and children have been fired on by government troops. Amnesty has expanded its capacity in the region to meet the challenges of reporting on so many ongoing events.

Yesterday, day one of the ICM, Secretary General Salil Shetty tweeted “put women’s rights at the top of the agenda, alongside the state of the movement & growth plans.” So in keeping with that spirit I want to blog to you about the role of women post-conflict in the in North African and the Middle East.

As an Irish delegate I am aware the immense role played by women in the peace process in Northern Ireland.  Two Irish women, Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to start a peaceful dialogue between the two factions. Without the efforts of women the country could still be in a state of civil war. But despite this when the peace process negotiations began women were excluded, and were not allowed to take part in the negotiations for what would become the new Northern Ireland.

Today in Egypt we are sadly seeing the same exclusion. Despite their heroic role in Egypt, the post-revolution committee appointed to revise the constitution was all male, as human rights activist El-Saadawi put it “The blood of the women killed in the revolution is still wet, and we were being betrayed.” When women turned up in Tahrir Square, Cairo to celebrate International Women’s Day the women were harassed, jostled, sexually assaulted and told to go back home “where they belonged.” In Egypt women are routinely harassed for walking the streets and expected to “stay at home and raise presidents, not run for president” says journalist Fairda Helmy.

At this ICM Amnesty has made it clear that if the uprisings in Middle East and North Africa are to mean true change for the region then women’s rights could be the barometer of a nation’s new freedom. This means they must be involved in the drafting of new constituents and be considered equal citizens with men in the newly reformed states. If women are excluded from the imporant decision-making processes, the newly won freedoms of all the citizens will in grave danger.

“What is true for Egypt is true, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes, and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.” – Naomi Wolf

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