Women protesters in Tunisia and Egypt forge forward for human rights

This article first appeared in Women News Network

(WNN) U.S./Global: As women across the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region experienced victory and discouraging setbacks with political participation and human rights for all in Egypt and Tunisia women activist leaders look back to reflect on what has gone wrong and what has gone right for the women who have pushed so very hard for change.

On the anniversary of the uprisings in Tahrir Square The Global Fund for Women, along with the Arab Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco, California (U.S.), hosted a special evening of analysis and reflection to give insight to the progress for women’s rights during the Arab revolution.

As a catalyst in the global women’s rights movement since 1987 mobilizing nearly 85 million dollars from 20,000+ diverse individuals and institutions the Global Fund for Women has provided grants to 4,200 groups in 171 countries. In 2010 alone their efforts reached 125,000 women and girls who went on to benefit thousands of others.

Sharing insights on the women’s protest movement in the Arab Spring, the latest Global Fund grantees Nadia Sraieb-Koepp from Tunisia along with Nawla Darwiche from Egypt joined with  Zeina Zaatari, Global Fund’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director to discuss the amazing progress and the setbacks that plague the activist movement in the region.

Bringing intensity and reality to the conversation about women’s progress in the region Sraieb-Koepp and Darwiche offered a valuable window into women and today’s societies in Tunisia and Egypt.

Nadia Sraieb-Koepp, who has served as part-time Press officer at the United Nations in the past is also co-founder of Engagement Citoyen (Engagement Citizien), a non-profit organization working to create a better informed public in Tunisia. As Sraieb-Koepp recalls right after the revolution in Tunisia, one of her best friends called and said, “…we women may lose all the rights we already have.” For years Tunisia has been at the global forefront in the push for women’s rights in the region.

Perhaps one of the most important questions for women in the Arab Spring region is: Has women’s involvement in bringing change to Tunisia and Egypt been undervalued?

“The March 8th call brought a few hundred women to the streets, [which is] nowhere near a million. This was not unexpected…,” revealed Egyptian author and Cairo University professor Dr. Hoda Elsadda in an article in the most recent book published by The Global Fund, “Telling Our Stories: Women’s Voices from the Middle East and North Africa,” edited by Zeina Zataari, which brings together a collection of articles that have gone deep to describe conditions for women on-the-ground in the region.

“… it was extremely unrealistic to imagine that the first sparks of a popular revolution would bring about overnight a radical transfor- mation in cultural attitudes towards women’s rights,” Elsadda continued. In January 2012 Elsadda became a judge and panelist for the Arabic Booker Prize. Her efforts to portray the real life and tone of Egypt have been extensive.

“…What came as a surprise and a real shock, however, was the marked hostility and violence unleashed against women protesters who were harassed and shouted at by groups of men who encircled them,” Elsadda outlined in her book. “Egyptian women took to the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day [last year], in response to a call that was sent out on Facebook for a million women’s march.”.

Conditions for women in Tunisia have shown promise. “After 1956, we were given almost all the rights French women had,” said Staieb-Koepp during the Global Fund for Women event. “You can have an abortion, you can divorce… [even though] there has never been a very strong movement to get these rights,” she continued.

But Sraieb-Koepp also went on to convey that she worries that if Tunisian women are not especially aware, their rights could be taken away. According to Sraieb-Koepp Islamic fundamentalists in Tunisia are now arguing one of the best ways to cope with unemployment is to “keep women at home.”

While Tunisia and Egypt have different histories, Sraieb-Koepp sees the fate of women in both countries to be very similar, “…it is basically the same experience as [in] Egypt. Women took over the civil society activism and men were drawn to politics,” she added.

But some severe backlashes have happened. “Yesterday two [Tunisian] women doctors were attacked in the hospital going to their cars. One of them was stabbed,” Sraieb-Koepp adds. “It is the kind of thing we never ever had before… This is where now it becomes tricky,” Staieb-Koepp emphasized… …people tend to get scared and intimidated and it paralyzes them to the point where nobody wants to do something anymore, that would be the worst case, if fear takes over.”

In 2010 many families in Tunisia were worried about years of rising poverty levels combined with the few jobs available going to those who already had positions of authority in the region. Food shortages and crisis extended from Egypt where an already spiraling crisis was taking place. This added hunger and hardship to the lives of those in Tunisia and in Egypt who already live at the very bottom of society.

“People want to be able to have some kind of hope for the future and to enjoy their fundamental rights,” added Sraieb-Koepp.

As rising corruption inside President’s Ben Ali’s administration spurred activism in Tunisia, many women stepped forward to share their goals to reform and improve Tunisian society.

But what is democracy? “Having different opinions without getting into [the] fight?” asked Sraieb-Koepp who works through her organization to make sure that women understand the election system with the importance of getting out the vote.

As the Arab Spring unfolded many global Middle East analysts were criticized because they did not predict the high volume of people who wanted drastic change in the region. It seemed the analysts did not completely get that conditions everywhere in the region on-the-ground were being pushed by an intensity of need; of society for equality, human rights and democracy.

“Essentially, the analysts did not get the answers wrong, they just never asked many of the most important questions,” outlined United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a December 2011 article she wrote for The Huffington Post. “…the dry kindling of repression, deprivation, exclusion, and abuse had been piling up for years, in Tunisia, across the region, and beyond,” she added.  “The actions, omissions, excesses and abdications of the governments of the region were certainly at the centre.”

In October 2011 the Tunisian elections were especially complicated. 104 different political parties were running. During the time Sraieb-Koepp’s organization, Engagement Citoyen, went to factories, engaged in discussion and reminded people how important it is to vote. As they went they watched reactions. A video posted about Engagement Citoyen’s push for the vote went viral on YouTube. “Beware dictatorship could return – go vote,” said Engagement Citoyen.

“Sometimes you can make a difference,” said Sraieb-Koepp. “I don’t think we can all change everything, but we have to find things we know how to do, we understand how to do, and there is enough space for.”

In three days Engagement Citoyen registered more than 2000 people to vote. “Stick together and continue to fight. Don’t give up. At this point, it would be too stupid to waste a revolution,” they said.

Egyptian women too have had their triumphs, but they have also experienced growing frustration following the Arab Spring revolution.

“…women were in the heart of this movement… women were everywhere, they were in the check-points, they were in the square, they were in the hospitals, they were throwing stones…,” said Egyptian activist Nawla Darwiche. “But right after Feb 11, 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down, marginalization of women began,” she continued. “…women’s struggle in Egypt did not begin yesterday, or last year, or 10 years ago, it began since the pharaoh’s… ….when the revolution ended, women were given many promises. But when the revolution ended, they were asked to return back home and take care of their families,” she added. “This is exactly what is happening now in Egypt.”

But Darwiche doesn’t see marginalization of women as anything strange or unusual. “Apparently, it happens after all revolutions,” she said, “from eastern Europe to Latin America, from the French to the Egyptian. It is very good to mobilize women, to participate, and once the revolution is done, your role is another thing, you have to go back home.”

“We went to the street, we thought, we have the right to dream…,” Darwiche reflected on the March 8th women’s protest movement in Egypt. “We have participated in the revolution, we have a right to think, how to translate the slogans of the revolution into the demands of women.”

But the message of the women was not universally accepted. Women who spoke out publicly were often attacked by fundamentalists and by who have been called in Egypt “the thugs of the old regime” who have been united against women. “Therefore, I can expect some dark years,” shared Darwiche who does not paint a pretty picture of women in today’s Egypt.

“There are attacks from all sides,” she conveyed. “Some people try to put us between two alternatives: …either the SCAF: The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, or the fundamentalists… …We have to say, no, there is a third way.”

Despite the constant challenges Egyptian women face, Darwiche sees solidarity as a primary goal, including solidarity with women worldwide. “We need your solidarity,” she said to those in the audience at The Global Fund for Women event.

“We ask you, on the 8th of March (2012), to be in front of Egyptian embassies [worldwide] in solidarity with Egyptian women.”

Though Darwiche  expects the first political casualties in Egypt to be women, and the first laws passed in the new parliament to be against women’s rights, “Things have changed, sometimes to better and sometimes to worse,” she added. “There is something irreversible [in Egypt]. People are not ready to accept everything.”

“…what these revolutions triggered, is, they [people] are not going to let themselves be intimidated,” added Straib-Koepp jumping into the conversation. “If something is wrong, they are going to be right back on the street. This is something that is completely new, but it is a positive development that comes out of these revolutions. It is not gender based.”

A Vision for the Future: Founder of Earth Trust, Vanya Orr

The Nilgiri Hills consists of a heart-shaped region rising almost vertically from the lowlands of the Southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka in Southern India. In order to protect its unique population of plants and animals, it was one of the earliest places in the world to be registered as a World Biosphere Reserve Home. The Nilgiris are also home to indigenous populations of India, including tribes such as the Toda, the Badaga and Kota, among others. Today, more than 60% of the grassland has disappeared. These grasslands served as a tank, taking water from the mists and rains and releasing it slowly through the roots of the ancient shola tree throughout the year. Much of this grassland has now been covered with destructive forests of eucalyptus, as well as tea plantations. “The Nilgiris is like the heart of south India,” Founder and Director of Earth Trust, Vanya Orr says during an interview in Ooty, India. “It [the Nilgiris] is the shape of a heart and supplies water and energy to South India, it has a real function.”

Vanya Orr, founder of Earth Trust

Vanya Orr, now 77 years-old, came to India with her mother when she was 60. But her connection to India goes back many years before. Her grandfather was a collector in Thane, Pune and Bombay from 1889-1920. Her great, great, great grandmother came to the Nilgiris at age 7 in 1824, very soon after the first Europeans arrived. Though she never intended to come to India at all, the trip with her mother became a turning point for Orr, and she has been living in India, for the most part, since 1994.

About 20 years ago, a little earlier than Orr arrived in India for the first time, the village people of Cinchona, walked the 540 kilometers (or 335 miles) from the Nilgiri Hills to the state government in Chennai, Tamil Nadu to ask state leaders to intervene on their behalf. As Orr recalls, there was a bitter impasse following the closing of the Government Cinchona Department, and it’s adoption by the Forest Department. The people were required to leave their homes, but they were determined not to. As Orr recalls, “Nobody could move. It just needed one person to step in and shift the pieces.”

“There was a kind of war going on,” Orr says. “Everyone was very cross with everyone else.” The people were suffering, “they kept saying to me, ‘Your grandfather was Superintendent here. You have photos of your grandparents and our grandparents… we are all part of the same story, you have got to help us.’” Orr says she didn’t know anything about anything in India, including how the hierarchy and bureaucracy works, not to mention the language and couldn’t see how she would be able to assist the situation.

The Nilgiri Hills

Orr asked the local people to write down the names of the people in the village, what their skills were and what they wanted to do together, “they brought this list to me a couple days later and they hadn’t got anything in the ‘what they wanted to do’ column, so I said ‘that’s useless,’ I can’t tell you what to do. You have to tell me what you want.” And they said, “No, it’s not possible, all we have done is lost. Our children have no food. We are right on the cliff’s edge… How can we dream? There is nothing and no future for us.”

She went to see the local Collector and the Forest Officer, as she remembers, “You know in England you just chat to people. I wasn’t bothered by their seniority. I suppose now I would be more circumspect!” Unsure of what to do next, Orr spent three days in the house her grandmother lived in, trying to think about her next plan of action. She remembers, “If I came here, thinking I was going to solve everyone’s problems, if this was just an ego trip, what a complete waste of time this would be. I had to know it was more than that.”

After being unable to decide exactly what to do, she went back to England. Things fell into place when she was given 500 pounds to see if going back to India was really something she had to do.

Early on, she was told “You haven’t got any credibility as a foreigner, and even less as a woman.” But it was suggested that she set up an NGO with the women of the village in order to act as a facilitator between the village and the forest department. “In the end, with this group of women, I set up the first Medicinal Plant Development Area in South India.” Today, the women’s group has, more than enough to start their own new projects.

Orr continued to act as a facilitator to re-establish the aromatic herbal fields and nurseries under the auspices of the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) and the Forest Department. Over the past several years, she has helped set up distillation units for essential oils, making linkages with the Spice Board and other outlets. After this, she left India for a year, but she continued to recall the story of a woman who poured kerosene over herself and burned to death from being desperately unhappy. A year later, the woman’s husband was run-over trying to stop a truck from stealing timber, “You don’t walk away from something like that when it happens, without it having some kind of impact.”After thinking about the people, the soil and the land, she returned from England.

An Earth Trust project site.

This time, her aim was to give people tools for survival, for women who were in situations of inescapable stress and farmer training, in order to mitigate the destruction of the soil. With health programs, stress management, and organic biodynamic farming and gardening, Earth Trust has a variety of tools at their disposal. “People don’t drink, or become violent for no reason, do they?” she says, “It is a symptom, not a cause. A symptom of woundedness or where we find our companionship. This was the idea, that by introducing these nurturing techniques, it could help people feel as if they were worth something.”

Orr believes that, for Nilgiris, this is a critical time in history, “The whole system of everyday living is built on dependency, it’s so important for people to start taking charge of their own lives.” She adds, “It seems to me, this time, is about trying to enable people in rural areas to survive within compassionate communities.” She also wants to play a role in giving children a feeling that they are able to help build a future, and allow people to be able to return to “working with their hearts.”

When I ask her about her vision for the future, she says, “that there will be clear water flowing from the streams of Nilgiris without poison… that everyone will have their place; animals will have their place, and people will have their place.” I smile and tell her it sounds good. She says, “It is possible, you see, it’s possible.”

I hope so.