Sunday, February 26, 2012

Despite Revolution Setbacks, Egyptian Women Refuse to Step Back into the Shadows - By Shahira Amin

SAVE Sister Shahira Amin
The women of Egypt were at the vanguard in the 18-day mass uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. But since the revolution, women have remained sidelined and marginalized, and have faced rigorous efforts to push them back into the shadows.

As they continue to fight for equality, women in Egypt are concerned that the gains they've made in recent years may be reversed as a rising tide of Islamism threatens to undermine their rights. Islamists took a commanding lead in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections winning more than 70% of the seats--a prospect that has worried liberals and especially women seeking gender equality. Only a handful of women have taken up seats in the new parliament after a Mubarak-era quota system reserving 68 seats for women was abolished ahead of the September vote. The election results have fuelled fears that many obstacles still stand in the way of women playing a full role in political life.

There are also concerns that the centuries-old tradition of female genital mutilation-- prevalent especially in the rural communities of Egypt-may continue unchecked. This, after recent calls by some Islamists to scrap a 2008 Health Ministry Decree criminalizing the harmful practice. Opponents of the law reject it because they link it to the Mubarak era and perceive it as part of "a set of foreign values imposed on Egyptians by the former regime."

But despite the setbacks, optimists argue there are a few hopeful signs for future progress, like Bothaina Kamel's bid for the presidency. Egypt's first female Presidential candidate realizes that her chances of winning the top post are slim. Still, she says she wants to shatter the glass ceiling and make it possible
for women to compete in future presidential elections.

Kamel travels the country touring deprived neighborhoods and campaigning for equal rights not just for women but also for all minority groups, including Copts, Nubians and Bedouins. Her efforts have earned her a huge following among both sexes, including young girls who tweet that she has given them "a chance to dream.'" Kamel often takes her campaign to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the January mass protests, and leads the chants for "Bread, freedom and social justice!"

But not everyone shares Kamel’s passion and enthusiasm. A year after the mass protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are growing increasingly weary. The country is divided into two camps: the revolutionary forces and what many here call the "couch party", referring to those who do not wish to involve themselves in politics and who opt for stability and a state of normalcy. "The emotional upheavals of the past year have drained us ," says Essam Makhlouf, a taxi driver. "We simply want to get on with our lives." He points at a military tank patrolling the street and shakes his head in dismay.

After reports of widespread thuggery and looting, the Egyptian armed forces stationed military tanks on the streets again in an attempt to restore law and order. This, following a wave of strikes by workers, protests that have spilt out of Tahrir onto other streets, and sit -ins staged outside key institutions like parliament and the Defence Headquarters. The activists are demanding a faster pace of reforms, "qassas" or justice for the victims of violence, and asking the military to immediately transfer power to a civilian government.

The military council running the country in the transitional phase has dealt harshly with dissidents, subjecting seven female protesters to forced "virginity tests" in March 2011 to intimidate them. More recently, female activists were beaten during a demonstration in front of Parliament Headquarters. Images of a young female protesters being stripped to her bra and dragged by the soldiers in a bid to humiliate her went viral on the Internet, triggering a barrage of international condemnation.

Women Protesting in Egypt- Photo by LA Times
Recently, three thousand women organized a march from Tahrir Square to the Journalists Syndicate to express their anger. They chanted: " our girls are a red line" and demanded the prosecution of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces) for crimes against humanity. Dubbed "the girl in the blue bra", the victim has come to symbolize the struggle for freedom and equality but also epitomizes the failure of the Arab Spring as the goals of the revolution remain far out of reach.

"The girl in the blue bra", an image that shocked viewers worldwide
While piling pressure on the military rulers to carry out the much needed reforms, the women's march also revealed a widening gap between secularists and conservatives. Feminists were shocked and deeply disappointed to hear some female members of the Muslim Brotherhood denounce the rally and accuse the female protesters of carrying out foreign agendas. Manal Abol Hassan, Head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party's women's committee criticized the women who marched in the rally saying their husbands, brothers or sons should have defended them instead.

While encouraging women to work, the Muslim Brotherhood has for decades favored more traditional roles for women . Their role within the movement has largely been limited to charity work and social activities. In the new politically party, the FJP, the women of the Brotherhood--also known as sisters, have not been granted seats on the leadership council.

Many women activists feel betrayed in the new Egypt, declaring that the revolution "has been stolen" from them by the military dictators and the Islamists. Nehad Abo El Komsan, Chairperson of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights is among those dissatisfied with the lack of progress on all fronts but especially on women's issues. A staunch defender of women's rights, Abo El Komsan has been pushing for amendments to the current Personal Status Code derived from Islamic Sharia law and which dictates the rules of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and employment.

Despite amendments introduced in 2000, Egypt's Family Status Law continues to allow for discrimination against women. Abo El Komsan is particularly concerned about widespread sexual harassment on the streets and has been pushing for legislation to curb the practice. "Sexual harassment appears to be on the rise," she laments. "It has been a serious problem for decades in our conservative patriarchal society but is worse today because of the political repression and economic strife."

While women have yet to reap the fruits of the revolution, they are adamant to continue their struggle for equality and emancipation. Women like Kamel and Abol Komsan hope to build on the gains made in recent years. They also hope to seize the moment and ensure that the revolution becomes a turning point for tangible change --not just for women but for the entire society. "We will confront all attempts to suppress us and will not be pushed back to the shadows," says Kamel, her voice filled with determination and hope.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations: a Collective Approach Instead of a Confrontational One - By Arshi Saleem Hashmi

Prof. Arshi Saleem Hashmi interacts with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the National Defence University in Islamabad on February 17, 2012

SAVE Sister Arshi Saleem Hashmi

Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently visited Pakistan, it was not his first visit but seemingly different this time around. After a long period of indifference and occasional confrontation, Karzai returned to Islamabad once again, this time advocating for a more collective approach between the two neighbors, especially when it comes to tackling violent extremism in the region.

Karzai talked about critical issues including democracy, women, development, education and media. He insisted that his government was working hard to get a hold of the declining situation in the country in order to preserve the achievements Afghanistan has made over the past few years. He also stated that these achievements should not be wasted because of the lack of a coherent approach vis-à-vis Pakistan and Afghanistan on issues such as terrorism and violent extremism.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (R)
shake hands in Islamabad on February 16, 2012. - Photo by AFP

I asked him if he believed a settlement could eventually be reached between his government and the Taliban who are now engaged in discussions together. And if he believed the militant group could reconcile with the process of democracy, and if not, whether or not his administration would be prepared to make some compromises.

His response was very interesting. He said the government would be willing to compromise only if the Taliban agreed to respect the rights of Afghan women, especially their right to education and participation in political and economic life. In other words, he claimed the government would take steps towards a settlement with the Taliban who give up their arms, but not at the cost of democracy and women’s empowerment.

Let us hope that future policy decisions within Afghanistan, and also concerning conflict management in cooperation with Pakistan, will adhere to President Karzai’s statement on women’s empowerment, a component that is crucial to the success of any initiative on peace and stability in the region.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sayra's Story: surviving a terrorist blast in Islamabad

By Sayra Mobeen, Student BBA (Honors), Islamic International University Islamabad 

The morning of 20 0ctober 2009 was a delightful one for me, but not for my country. I was happy to go to university and see my friends, entirely forgetful of the years of unending dilemma and constant threat of terrorism in Pakistan.

I have never been a keen follower of the news, and that is why I could never relate to the pain people faced after a bomb blast, or after losing a loved one in a terrorist attack. However, I was not aware that my perspective was about to change.

The twin blasts that hit my University that day changed my life, as it was the first strike that targeted female students in Islamabad. This incident left a very deep effect on my life, and brought me face to face with a disaster which in its wake entailed numerous challenges for me. Sadly I was a victim of that incident and have been lucky to survive to tell my story.

I remember that day after classes, I came back to my hostel room at about 2:45 pm. My friend Umme Kalsoom came by and asked me to accompany her to the cafeteria, so I got up and we left together.We went to the cafeteria fruit shop but they were sold out of fruit. I don’t recall why we were in such a hurry that day, we both ignored our classmates who were sitting outside asking us to join them, and rushed into the main cafeteria hall.

We bought some snacks and sat inside the café on the left side of the hall, it didn't even cross our mind to join our friends outside. A moment later, we realized that we had forgotten to buy soft drinks so I went to get some.While walking back to our table, I suddenly heard a dreadful sound, and was surrounded by smoke as my ears quickly deafened. I felt as if I had been hit by something horrible. I suddenly became disoriented and fell down to the floor.

A girl fixes flowers next to the picture of three students who were killed in a bomb blast at the International Islamic University in 2009. PHOTO: MUHAMMAD JAVAID, Tribune.

A sudden rush of pain made me realize I was hurt. I could feel the pain on my body, arms, legs, forehead and chest. Later, I found out that the major injuries I received were on my chest.

I thanked God I was conscious, and tried to walk away from the cafeteria to save myself, but couldn't. I then saw my friends looking for me; my shirt was covered in blood from the wounds on my head and chest. When Umme Kulsoom saw me in this critical condition she started crying. I asked her to look for my cell phone which I had lost in the blast so I could call my family and reassure them. She asked a female employee of the café to look after me while she went to look for help.

I felt more afraid of the blast than of my injuries. The café staff told me I had severe injuries and that I had to go to the hospital. They tried to put me in a taxi but I refused to go alone. The staff then left me and walked away, this hurt me even more. I thought of my family and friends and started to cry.

When my friends finally found me, I was in a great deal of pain. They took me to the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences. The doctors decided to undertake immediate surgery because of the serious nature of my injuries. I was very worried knowing that my family was not with me, and I did not know what would be the result of the operation. But that is perhaps what saved my life.

After initial treatment in the PIMS and in view of the nature of my injuries, I was sent to the Combined Military Hospital at Mangla Cantonment for treatment. I underwent treatment at Mangla and suffered lots of pain and surgical interventions, for approximately four months. During this period my family and I suffered a lot, as they had to arrange for a place to live in Mangla, and commute from Abbottabad to Mangla regularly.

My injuries were similar to the injuries that soldiers receive in the battle field. The doctors at Mangla tried very hard to remove the pieces of shrapnel from my body, but even then, they could not remove it all. Some non-life-threatening pieces of the material that was used in the suicide jacket are still in my body, and will remain in me for life. It hurts at times, but at least I am alive!

As I said I did not pay attention to news of bomb blasts when I saw it on television or read about it in the newspapers, therefore I could never truly comprehend the pain of others; especially those who suffered during terrorist or suicide attacks. But since my ordeal, I can recognize the pain and difficulties of survivors and victims’ like me, and I can connect with them and help them in their recovery from trauma.

This unpleasant incident did not close the door of life on me; it just showed me the unpleasant direction that life can take sometimes. I am happy, and grateful to God that I am back to my normal life, thanks to my family, friends, and many other people who helped me recover. This experience has strengthened my belief that obstacles only make you a stronger and more determined person. As we say in Pakistan: “ Obstacles come into your life to polish you, and turn you into a strong and shiny diamond”.

Islamic International University, Islamabad

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The SAVE Team Reports: Mothers' Hopes in Palestine

A view of the wall dividing Israel and the Palestinian Territories

We, the Women without Borders/SAVE team, have spent the last five days speaking to Palestinian women across the Occupied Territories. The vast majority live in villages or refugee camps, many of them in close proximity to settlements where they experience with hostile interactions on a daily basis. Most women are housewives, often with 8-10 children, and their education is basic. What they all have in common: one of their sons is usually in prison, often as young as 14 or 15. Their family members do not know how long they will stay in prison.

All the mothers we have spoken with are highly concerned about the impact of the ongoing conflict and everyday encounters with Israeli soldiers. 

Additionally, everyone we have spoken to says the situation is now much worse than it was a few years ago-movement has been severely restricted, Israelis and Palestinians now almost never meet, and many have no idea whatsoever as to what life is like on the other side of the wall. All Palestinians over the age of 45 speak Hebrew, as there used to be far more exchange between the countries. The young generation is now cut off in terms of language, movement, and economic access.

The decorated Palestinian side of the wall
Today, all mothers insist that education is the only way their children can have a better life. One of the mothers summed it up quite succinctly: "there was a time when it was important to throw a stone so the world knew where Palestine was. But this is behind us. Our children now need to be educated so that the world knows where Palestine is." Another said "education is our resistance, not violence."

It is quite clear that a collective shift in attitude is taking place, sadly in a period of time where the windows of opportunity seem to be shutting again. 

Our direct conversations with the women challenge the international stereotype of Palestinian mothers who proudly send their sons off to become martyrs and cluck to celebrate their "fait accompli." The mothers say that they want to see a better life for their children, and that they shouldn't have to face the same hardships as their parents. There are many examples, such as Nadwa's narrative: she recalls her two and a half-year-old son twirling and singing "the soldiers will get my brother Ali." She was horrified that even her youngest son was aware of what was happening. She asks herself what this will do to his psyche, if such events calibrate his childhood memory.

Bustling daily life for women on the streets of Ramallah

We met several of the women in a refugee camp community center. Our SAVE partner invited them to speak with us, and many walked away from our conversations expressing hope that our trip will lead to workshops that will address their concerns and help them to be better prepared to tackle the most delicate issues of violence and conflict with their children.

Our trip will continue in the coming week with stories from Israeli settlements and the capital city of Tel Aviv. Follow our live tweets at SAVEalerts

A breathtaking view across the desert
Best from Jerusalem,

Edit Schlaffer and the SAVE Team

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS