By Cléo Fatoorehchi
United Nations, (IPS) – The momentous events of Tahrir Square, Egypt also signify a huge step forward for gender equality in the region, women’s rights activists said Friday.
Nora Rafeh Refa Tahtawi, a youth activist who participated in the Tahrir protests and is now in New York for the two- week Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters, recalled that women stood side by side with men, all sharing the feeling that they belonged to the same movement with the same goals.
Dr. Azza Kamel, a prominent Egyptian women’s rights activist, was also part of the movement that toppled president Hosni Mubarak earlier this month.
The Egyptian people simply want “freedom, justice, dignity”, Kamel told IPS, and “this is the first time that women deal with dignity as equals with men.”
“There is no room for ethnic tension,” she added, highlighting the idea of “family” described by Tahtawi with the formula “one heart, one hand, one brain”.
“No one will manage to divide them [the Egyptian people] now,” Kamel said.
Dignity – karama in Arabic – is a word that was chanted often during the protests. It is also the name of an international grassroots organisation created in 2005, which is based in Egypt and has programmes throughout the Arab world, with offices in Sudan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, and Jordan.
Hibaaq Osman, founder and executive director of Karama, emphasised to IPS that “this revolution brought people who are completely different, of class, of education, politically, in every way.”
“They saw themselves as a community,” she said. “They have unified their vision, they have unified their energy, this was about them and for them. Every woman was suffering the same way.”
“When people come together…nothing is ever going to stop them,” she told IPS. “They become the bulldozers. They broke the wall of fear, of gender, of poor and rich… everyone was equal standing there.”
According to Kamel, while Tunisian women were the “catalyst” for Egyptian women, now Bahraini women are breaking barriers too, even though the society is more conservative.
“We are writing our history now, and the sky is our limit,” said Tahtawi, promising the Libyan people, “You will win.”
The head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, Nihad Abou El Komsan, agreed that, “When women decide, there is no barrier.”
She added that freedom can be more difficult in some ways than slavery, because it implies responsibilities. “The future is not guaranteed,” she said.
Osman identified a “window of opportunities” for women. They were a very big part of the protests, and now they have to insist “to be involved in the draft of the constitution, they have to make sure that they are in every important committee,” she told IPS – especially when the constitutional committee “doesn’t have any women yet”.
“We will have very tough times now” to establish democracy, she acknowledged. People must unite, demand dignity, respect, and freedom – political, social and religious. “That’s when you realise democracy,” she concluded.
The newly launched U.N. Women has an important role to play to ensure that women have a place at the decision-making table. The agency is reformulating its programmes in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East to include these new opportunities, said Moez Doraid, deputy executive director of U.N. Women.
“Gains and victories have been achieved at the political, societal and gender levels,” he affirmed. “[We] need to sustain the benefits…and be vigilant to avoid reversal.”
One way to achieve this is the use of affirmative action and quotas, he added.
According to Osman, U.N. Women needs to focus on civil society women’s organisations, “reflecting the aspirations, the themes, and the beauty of women, politically speaking.”
She stressed to IPS the real challenge now is to ensure that this new U.N. entity will do what it has promised: prioritising women. It was “brought by women, and it should be for women,” she said.