Activists of the Arab world : Between “reward” and oblivion… (09/10/11)

Malika HAMIDI

This year, and for the first time of its history, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to three emblematic figures “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian and first elected feminine Head of State in Africa, has worked for the reconstruction and the furtherance of peace in her country after 14 years of civil war.
Leymah Gbowee, activist from the same country and also called the “peace warrior”, trusted herself against sexual violence committed against women: This violence used during armed conflicts are war crimes and weapons used from time immemorial. She fought over and over against the rape of women and lead off an impressive peaceful movement, which mobilized women beyond their ethnic and religious belonging to bring an end to the second civil war in 2003.
The third laureate is the Yemeni Tawakkul Karman. She is the first Arab woman to be awarded with this prize, which she “dedicated to the Arab spring”. Since years, even before the beginning of the Tunisian uprising, this journalist, mother of three, has been fighting for Human Rights in the Yemeni society where women are given too little consideration: she headed the peaceful gatherings and sit in on the Place of Freedom in Sana’a. Activist for the defence of Human Rights, she co-founded in 2005 the group “Women Journalists Without Chains” for freedom of thought and expression. Her tenacity, her courage and her determination made her lead off and head the peaceful demonstrations against Saleh’s Government at the end of January 2011.

It is certainly necessary to greet the symbolic range of this prize (beyond this, Karman is the living symbol of a whole generation in the area), but it must be reminded that for a few years the prize has been criticized for its “shabby” past. The award of the Nobel Prize is fallible and has more to do with the “political correctness” than with the real talent of the nominees. Indeed, the reputation, the meaning and the glory of this prize has been seriously damaged; the Nobel lost “its nobility”, as it’s committee was criticized “for giving lessons to the others and putting out propaganda for Western values”.

Because of the international political situation and the international community’s interest in the surge of disputes, the Nobel committee could not ignore the figureheads of those who will have left their mark on History. Despite the “subjective” nature of the distinction, the feminine form of the Arab activism has held the attention of the Nobel committee members.

The ambitious president of the Nobel committee, the Norwegian Mr Jagland, has declared that on the one hand the Nobel prize was awarded to Mrs. Karman to show how women and Islam play a crucial role within non-violent movements, and on the other hand the Islamic movement, El Islah of which she is a member and which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood (seen by the West as a threat to democracy), can be “a substantial part of the solution” in the major crisis that plagued the region.

These are disturbing and probably “calculated” remarks for those (from the Western as well as from the Arab world) who see in Islam and women two antithesis of any liberation or equality project. It seems worthy to remind the following evidence: all claims of durable democracy require that all members of the society, regardless of their sexual, religious and ethnic belonging, take part in the furtherance of peace.

This symbolic and historic prize awarded to the woman who has made the “Arab spring” flourish, gives an eternal life to the memory of thousands of martyrs, women and men, whose courage in face of death will remain an example for those who dare to defy cruel despots. It is also worth noting here the political courage of these women, victims of rapes, men’s cruelty, wild repressions of police forces, in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt.

Women largely contributed to the mobilizations, which change the Arab world: the ocean of women, veiled or not, from all social classes, marching throughout the capitals surprisingly united, all together to change the regime and end the repression, has surprised the world. The stereotypical image of the Arab women, waiting passively for their emancipation from the West, has now faded away from the collective mind. It teaches the West a good lesson as veiled Muslim women in Europe have to prove their credentials to be “tolerated” in feminist movement.

Their participation in protest movements will have also impressed Arab men who have welcomed their contribution to the rebellion. These revolts were first and foremost about changing the regime and not about feminist claims. Noor Jilal, a Bahrein woman, stated that women did not fight for “their rights but the rights of all”, to start with freedom and an equalitarian citizenship, but also, it must be said, a more important role for the women in the civil society.

Yet some questions remain: have these women now been forgotten? Which will be the next stage for women in the democratization process within the Arab societies? Which will be their real position in the governments that are now being shaped and in the democratic transition? For if it is essential to distinguish the revolutionary stage from the slow process towards the democracy, the true fight for freedom, justice and democracy is beginning only now.

After getting rid of the regime, it is necessary to refuse that these revolts’ meaning and female issues become hostage of other despots. Women must be able to take part in negotiations; some of them have died for their participation in these popular uprisings. The men would be in contradiction with the basic principles of these revolts if women were not associated with the decision-making process: women must be part of the Parliament, the Government as well as companies’ boards of directors in order to rebuild the country.

Whereas revolts are “slowing down” it is time to consider fights against sex discriminations in political spheres, following the example of the Pakistani Constitution which prohibits it: approximately a quarter of the Parliament’s members are women in spite of strong cultural discriminations.
Freedom’s promises will require women’s participation in the new political parties, because they have proved widely that they can act as effective partners side by side with men.
Despite some frustration, determination and optimism remain so as history does not repeat itself.
Consequently the prize awarded to Tawakkul Karman will bring back the Yemeni revolts on the agenda and will probably help to get rid of other Arab regimes. This “recognition” paid by the international community for women’s role in the freedom’s process of the Arab societies will give “confidence” to women in areas where their participation in politics has been long less than tolerable.

Tawakkul is the Arabic word for “confidence”, it is a predestination in this new era which opens the way for a female revival all over the world, hence she became the symbol of a whole activist generation of revolutionary and autonomous women who have astonished the whole world.

Women’s mass participation in the demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen will have proved to the world that reforms leading to democratization of a society and greater respect for human rights is not only the preserve of the West. These values are universal and form the common moral inheritance shared by all human beings.
May this reward to the one who has been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, and which is the result of a long peaceful struggle for freedom and respect towards human dignity, be useful.

May this “confidence” in the future be the flourishing fulfilment of women from all over the world, united in their faith in justice, freedom and democracy.

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