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January 23rd, 2011
Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
What is happening in Yemen and why should we care? Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week. She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her. He has no idea where she is. “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”
Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah. She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.
With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is
President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office, she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.
Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights. She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular. She has also advocated taking off the veil. In a recent interview by WJC, she said:
I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.
Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation. In that same interview, she stated,
I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.
Will we hear from Tawakul again? Probably not, unless the international community speaks out. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women dissidents.
On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down. They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province. [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:
The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights
These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable. But will they be heard?
What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?
What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years. A long-entrenched government of quasisecular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations. Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.
I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen. The official name of this political party is “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen, “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: "Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party", cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].
Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women. Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion. Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa. A similar, tragic transformation took place in Iran.
To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women. Clearly, they are not. My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.
For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government. There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.
I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it. And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion. And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people. I can admire reformers who take this path, but I can’t consider this a very clean path.
It’s simply not intellectually honest to sign up for a religion, any religion, that in word and practice continually reiterates the falsehood that masculinity is superior to femininity.
So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy. The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman. Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution. We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government. We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.
_________________________________________ February 5, 2011
Asmaaa Mahfouz, a woman behind Egypt’s pro-democracy revolution
The Canadian Charger More by this author...
So much has been written about women's rights in Muslim countries, even citing this issue as a justification for the western military invasion, but the western feminist movement remains largely silent about the current pro-democracy uprising in Egypt. As a result of miniscule coverage in the western press, perhaps many don't know that Asmaaa Mahfouz – a 26-year-old Egyptian woman – was and is a leading figure in Egypt's three-year old democracy movement.
A founding member of the April 6 Youth Movement – an Egyptian Facebook group started in the spring of 2008 to support workers in El-Mahalla El-Kubra - an industrial town north of Cairo - who were planning to strike on April 6 of that year, Ms. Mahfouz graduated from the business management school of the American University of Cairo in 2008. Upon graduation, Mahfouz emerged as an activist on social media pages throughout Egypt. In 2008, Ms. Mahfouz and other activists connected with the April 6 Movement used the internet to mobilize support for a general strike. As a result, Mahfouz and her family were subjected to harassment by Egyptian security forces. Subsequently her job as an accountant at Al Shaimaa export and import firm was suspended, due to her political activity in the current protests. She is considered one of the most important symbols of the January 2011prodemocreacy uprising in Egypt – to the degree that the new Egyptian government that formed after the uprising requested to meet with her, but she declined. Using Facebook, Twitter and a famous YouTube video and her January 18thvideo tape, Ms. Mahfouz rallied thousands of people to participate in the current protests. On January 31, Asmaa Mahfouz, told Egypt’s Al-Mihwar TV about her decision to use Facebook to take action in Egypt before the Internet was jammed by the Egyptian government. Her YouTube video is a rallying cry for justice that rivals any the world has ever seen.
She begins by saying that four Egyptians set themselves on fire to protest humiliation, hunger and poverty and degradation, hoping to ignite a revolution like Tunisia, adding, “Maybe we can have freedom, justice, honour and human dignity.” After posting the video she said she went down to Tahrir square and stood alone holding a banner - even writing her phone number on it - asking people to come and join her, but only three guys came; and all were soon arrested by the security police. On the video she says: “These self-immolators were not afraid of death, but we're afraid of security forces. Can you imagine that? Are you also like that? I will not set myself on fire. If the security forces want to set me on fire, let them come and do it. If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25. Whoever says that women shouldn't go to protests because they could get beaten, let him have some honour and dignity and come with me on January 25.” She says anyone who says it's not worth it because there will be only a handful of people, is the reason for the problem. “I want to tell him that you are the reason behind this and you are a traitor just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets. Your presence among us will make a difference. Talk to your neighbours, your colleagues, friends and family. Tell them to come. Sitting home and just following it on the news or on Facebook leads to our humiliation. If you have honour or dignity as a man, come. Come and protect me and other girls in the protest. If you stay at home then you deserve all that's being done to you. And you will be guilty before your nation and your people and you'll be responsible for what happens to us on the streets while you sit at home.” While many people around the world wonder why the Egyptian people have lost their fear of the authorities after 30-years of iron-fisted rule, individual Egyptians like Ms. Mahfouz are inspiring them. In her video, she implores people not to be afraid of the government. “Fear none but God. God says, 'He will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.' Do you think you can be safe anymore? None of us are. I'm going down on January 25 and I will say 'No' to corruption. ‘No’ to this regime.” In a February 1, New York Times article Ms. Mahfouz said that when she posted this video she worried about the reaction that it might generate in a society that expected women to behave in a more subdued and reserved manner.
“I felt that doing this video may be too big a step for me, but then I thought: For how much longer will I continue to be afraid and hesitant? I had to do something,” To her surprise, dozens of other people picked up on the spirit of her message and started to post their own pictures, holding similar signs to their chests that declared their intent to take to take to the streets on January 25, in what turned out to be the beginning of a revolution almost no one else thought possible. “As long as you say there is no hope, there will be no hope,” Ms. Mahfouz said. “But if you go down and take a stance, there will be hope.”