Throughout the media coverage in recent months of the tumultuous events in Egypt, little attention has been paid to Egyptian women, who may have the most to gain or to lose in any new political order that emerges in the country. Social media and dedicated Web sites are filling the gap for many women eager for news, in Egypt and across the Muslim world.
“The feminist movement in Egypt is long and deep, but in the current situation, they have to tread a very fine line,” said Rita Henley Jensen, the founding editor-in-chief of Women’s eNews, which established an Arabic service — awomensenews.org — in 2003 as part of its coverage of women’s issues, from politics to personal health. Across the Middle East, its reach has been growing steadily.
Less than a year after the traumatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Henley Jensen began to notice that the online service’s site, until then geared mostly to women in North America and Europe, was beginning to attract larger numbers of Arabic-speaking readers.
Early in the summer of 2002, the United Nations had just published its groundbreaking, first Arab Human Development Report, a sharp critique of public life in the region, written by Arab intellectuals. It concluded that three factors were holding back development and stifling innovation in Arabic-speaking countries. These three “deficits,” as the report defined them, were political freedom, the repression of women and isolation from the world of ideas. The Arab Middle East, with its abundance of oil, was “richer than it is developed,” the report said.
Henley Jensen had been thinking for some time about how to reach women in Arab societies, and the new Arab regional audience for Women’s e-News, plus the blunt conclusions of the development report and other similar advice from economists, opened the possibility to create an added dimension to Women’s eNews. Later in 2002, Henley Jensen, with her Arabic service already in planning, participated in a UN conference in Beirut with women focused on the regional media to pick up some concrete ideas, she said in an interview.
The Arabic-language section of Women’s eNews continues to expand its reach, especially since the turmoil in Egypt goes on unabated. “We’ve been very proud of our Arabic service,” she said. Its audience has grown fastest since the revolutionary movements of the Arab Spring erupted in North Africa at the end of 2010. There has been a 30 percent to 40 percent rise in unique page views of the Arabic section since then, the service reports.
The attention to Arabic-speaking women was welcomed from the start by UN officials in the region, including Mervat Tallawy, an Egyptian diplomat who was executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, based in Beirut when the conference on women in media was held. (At the end of her term, Tallawy was followed as the commission’s executive secretary by Rima Khalaf, who led the international team that devised and produced the first Arab Human Development Report.)
Tallawy is now president of the National Council for Women-Egypt, a body of experts and advocates established in March 2012 with a broad mandate to monitor women’s rights. Early this year, the council, and Tallawy personally, raised an alarm about negative changes to the status of women proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood under the guise of reducing violence. In March this year, she said in a paper for the Commission on the Status of Womenthat Egypt’s new constitution, framed under the influence of Islamist parties working under President Mohammed Morsi at the time “ignored the basic rights of women politically, socially and economically.”
Henley Jensen added in the recent interview that the parliament elected after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak had only one female member, who “said that she supported female genital mutilation.” Egyptian feminists, health workers and some leading Muslim scholars had fought against the practice for decades and finally seen it outlawed during the Mubarak years, though in practice it still continues.
“I think we get a much better picture of diversity within the region, as well as the diversity within Egypt,” Henley Jensen said of the Women’s eNews Arabic service. “Egypt has had a strong feminist movement since at least the early 1900s. At the same time, as we know, women throughout the region occasionally support restrictive regimes. Added to the complication in Egypt is that Suzanne Mubarak [the former president’s wife] was viewed as pro-progressive women, and you have to reshape the entire dialogue there, because you don’t want to be aligned with Suzanne Mubarak anymore.”
While many Egyptian women, especially in rural areas, are very conservative religiously and socially, some very bold groups are emerging in Cairo and other urban centers, several of them virtual self-defense squads. They have been especially active since the overthrow of Morsi on July 3, intervening to pull women out of the way of frequent sexual assaults from men in street crowds.
Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based broadcast network, reported on Aug. 13 that women, some in self-styled uniforms, were taking videos or photos of harassment and posting them online with the identities of the attackers. On the same day, allAfrica.com reported that one outraged group of Egyptian women had started a campaign called “We will wear dresses” in defiance of Islamist demands that female legs be covered. These women also say that they have created pages to promote an antiharassment drive on Facebook and Twitter.
Henley Jensen calls these steps momentous. “They showed a way,” she said. “They’re there, they’re strong. The military is probably going to ignore them. We have to wait and see how this shakes out. But if the military does ignore their rights, we will be hearing from them consistently.”
Women’s eNews Arabic service has reporters around the Middle East, North Africa and into Turkey, a Muslim but not Arab country. Dominique Soguel, a journalist who also works for Agence France-Presse, is the regional bureau chief for Women’s eNews in Arabic. “We use stringers on a regular basis,” Henley Jensen said, “and then we also translate our English news into Arabic so that everyone can access what’s going on around the world.” Arabic reports may also be translated into English for wider circulation.
“Across the region, women are insisting on change,” Henley Jensen said, adding that some regional media organizations and institutions — such as the Arab Women Media Center in Jordan — are contributing to fostering women’s involvement in telling their own stories from their local perspectives.
Among the issues women in the region wrestle with as the political ground shifts in certain countries is how to reconcile the teachings of Islam with contemporary laws and social norms affecting women. The Women’s Learning Partnership in Bethesda, Md., has been working since the late 1990s on legal, political and human-rights training material for women in mostly Muslim-majority nations worldwide, though the reach of its publications is wider than the 20 countries in formal partnership.
Mahnaz Afkhami, the Iranian-American founder and president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, has a network of contacts in Egypt now following constitutional developments and the rights and roles of women there. The organization publishes a fact sheet on women in the Arab Spring, outlining the setbacks to their rights under the influence of Islamic political parties. The tragedy is most acute in North Africa.
“Women played a major role in the uprisings of 2011 referred to as the ‘Arab Spring,’ including serving as founders and leaders of some of the most active, well-known groups advocating for democracy and human rights,” a June 27 fact sheet reports, noting that the situation is now more precarious. “Following regime changes caused by revolts in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia newly elected conservatives have threatened to eliminate hard won achievements.” Women trying to hold the line in countries like these need all the media attention they can get.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.