Women and the Arab uprisings: 8 ‘agents of change’ to follow

Story highlights

Women were at the forefront of the Arab Spring protests

Now, some fear that women's rights are de-prioritized

Here are 8 short profiles of women who are continuing the charge

CNN  — 

Women have been at the forefront of the uprisings that started in Tunisia and soon cascaded west to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and across the Gulf. Over the past year, Arab women have relished the promise of a change – and found a new sense of equality long suppressed under sclerotic patriarchal regimes.

But many women activists fear that promise is now receding; and that women’s rights are being left on the political back-burner. In Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections – largely seen as the nation’s first free and fair vote – only nine of the newly elected 498 parliamentarians are women.

Popular Egyptian activist blogger Dalia Zaida says shortly before the elections, she conducted an informal poll of 1,400 voters across Cairo and found not a single person, male or female, who said he or she would vote for a female presidential candidate. Women across the region worry about this growing chasm between the reality of women’s unyielding participation on the streets and their stark absence from the formal political process.

Some secular female activists also fear that the rise of Islamist parties, whatever their professed moderation, will curtail their political space.

In Egypt, women have faced brutal treatment at the hands of the caretakers of the revolution – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Activists describe its handling of protests as incompetent at best, and malevolent at its worst. Back in March, when the military forcibly expelled protestors from Tahrir Square – the epicenter of pro-democracy protests – 18 female activists were arrested, 17 of whom say they were forced to undergo “virginity tests,” (the military has claimed the tests were done to protect the army from possible allegations of rape).

Recently, hundreds of women from across the Middle East attended a conference in Egypt to discuss how technology and the Internet, namely social media, can be used to protect and advance women’s goals in the region. The Egyptian-American pundit Mona Eltahaway moderated the conference, taking the stage with both arms in casts. In November, she was sexually assaulted and beaten by soldiers near Tahrir Square. The plaster didn’t preclude her from articulating her message: “The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is share her experience as if it matters.”

As countries across the region struggle to dismantle inequitable systems and build civil society anew, these are just a few of the female “agents of change” who are sharing their experiences and have no intention of backing down.

Manal al Sharif (Saudi Arabia)
Follow on Twitter: @manal_alsharif

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Last May, 32-year-old information security consultant Manal al Sharif got into her car in Saudi Arabia for a joyride – of sorts. And because, simply by driving, she was breaking the law. As her friend recorded her behind the wheel, al Sharif harangues Saudi Arabia’s notoriously strict gender laws. She posted the video online the next day, helping to catalyze the “#Women2Drive” movement of Saudi women who openly defied the ban on driving. She was promptly detained in jail for nine days. Al Sharif has since expanded her campaign to “My rights, my dignity,” which fights for women’s right to drive and the annulment of male guardianship (under this tradition, Saudi women must obtain permission from their guardian – usually a father or husband – to work, travel, study, or marry) among other things. “We’re half the society, but we give birth to and raise the other half,” al Sharif says. “So we are actually all of society.”

Her fight has just begun. Next month, she and fellow Saudi women will apply for drivers’ licenses to push the claim that the kingdom’s ban on female drivers is not explicitly laid down in law, but merely a retrograde custom propped up by religious rulings, or fatwas, from the kingdom’s conservative clerics. And if they are denied? “We will appeal,” she says defiantly.

Dalia Ziada (Egypt)
Follow on Twitter: @daliaziada

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Dalia Ziada, 30, ran, but lost, in Egypt’s parliamentary elections as a candidate for the El Adl (“Justice”) party, a new party founded by young revolutionaries that espouses a moderate religious and political ideology. Through the party, she founded the first partisan women’s organization in Egypt to promote political literacy and help empower qualified women to run.

Ziada is an award-winning blogger – whose website was censored twice under ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – and a staunch advocate for women’s rights. As a child, she was subjected to female genital mutilation. The practice was made illegal in Egypt in 2007, with the country’s top Christian and Muslim religious authorities also expressing unequivocal support for the ban. In 2005, research by UNICEF found that 96 percent of Egyptian women ages 15 to 49 who had ever been married reported they had been circumcised. Ziada, the Egypt director of the American Islamic Congress, was recently named by Newsweek as one of 150 most influential women in the world and honored by The Daily Beast as one of world’s 17 bravest bloggers.

“The biggest challenge facing women is how they see themselves and their role in the political, economic, and social changes going on around them,” says Ziada, who wears a headscarf and is an observant Muslim currently studying International Relations at Tufts University in Boston. “The spring cannot come without flowers. And women are the flowers of the Arab Spring, but if they do not appreciate their own value and societies fail to include them in democratic transformation, the end will not be nice.”

Maria Al-Masani (Yemen):
Follow on Twitter: @al_Masani

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Maria Al-Masani says she grew up with an abusive father who tried to marry her off at the age of 14. She is now a public relations specialist based in Canada and the founder of Yemen Rights Monitor, a nonpartisan initiative for recording human rights violations in Yemen.

“Since I can’t physically be in Yemen, my goal is to save lives by making it easier for the media to shine light on human rights abuses in Yemen,” she says with warm hazel eyes and an unshakable poise that helped her win “Miss Congeniality” at the Miss Universe Canada pageant. She says her heroine is a veiled woman in her hometown of Taiz who walked up to a firing squad, urging them to put down their guns.

“My dream is that one day,” she says, on the verge of tears, “the president of Yemen will get in her car and drive to Saudi Arabia to shake hands with the king.”

Yasmine El-Mehairy (Egypt)
Follow on Twitter: @SuperMamaME

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Yasmine El-Mehairy is the co-founder and CEO of Super Mama, the first online parenting community in the Middle East that serves as an information hub for Arab mothers. El-Mehairy says many Arab women grew up in a didactic culture in which they are used to being told what to do – especially when it comes to parenting. She hopes to change that through information, so that “the woman can finally choose what’s best for her.”

El-Mehairy says that oftentimes the main source of advice for Arab mothers is their own mothers and grandmothers. But in many cases, she says with a laugh, their experiences are outdated. “We’re witnessing generational shifts that have ushered in more Arab mothers working and earning their own money,” she says.

One of the most popularly read sections of the website is called “Daddy Darling.” “In our region, most men aren’t involved at all in raising the children. They are the money makers but leave all the parenting to us,” she explains. “Many mothers want to share critiques with their husbands in an indirect way, so we thought the woman could send her husband articles from the website.”

El-Mehairy says the section has become so popular with men that they now have volunteer male writers contributing. “We are creating change without breaking cultural and traditional characteristics of the region.”

Lamees Dhaif (Bahrain)
Follow on Twitter: @LameesDhaif

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“I come from a country where a mother burned herself because her son was repeatedly tortured,” Lamees Dhaif, a 32-year-old journalist, resolutely proclaims. “I come from a country where protests happen every day, but no one talks about it. We are the women of the forgotten revolution.”

Dhaif is from Bahrain, a tiny island nation between Saudi Arabia and Iran where the United States bases the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and where the Shiite majority has frequently protested its political and economic marginalization by the ruling Khalifa dynasty, which is Sunni.

When the Arab Spring broke out, the Shiites, with some Sunni allies, took to the streets in huge numbers, demanding a representative and constitutional democracy. Dhaif, a vocal supporter of the protests, left the country in March 2011 after several death threats against herself and her family.

“Women are punished doubly for speaking out– one time as a rebel, the other as traitor. If you protest, you’re called a prostitute. They used to censor my words, but I don’t care,” she laughs. She says the number of her followers on Twitter (almost 60,000) exceed the circulation of almost all Bahraini newspapers. “They can stop some now from telling stories, but they can’t stop us forever.”

Shahinaz Ahmed (Egypt)
Follow on Twitter: @Shahinazahmed

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The numbers don’t always bode well for Egypt, the fourth-largest economy in the Middle East. The country is grappling with high unemployment, inflation, shrinking foreign investment, labor strikes, declining tourism, and foreign currency reserves that have tumbled to about $10 billion from $36 billion. Forty percent live below the poverty line and unemployment in Egypt has hovered around 12 percent all year.

Sixty percent of Egyptians are 30 years old or younger, and at least one of every four between ages 18 and 30 are out of work. That’s where Shahinaz Ahmed comes in. Ahmed is the CEO of Education For Employment Foundation, a nonprofit that tries to help disadvantaged youth via market-based education. “One of the greatest challenges facing women in the region is freedom of choice,” she says. “In order to have such freedom, economic independence is critical.”

At the EFE, almost half of the job candidates are women. EFE provides them with instruction that qualifies them for entry-level positions with private sector companies. It’s been able to place 96% of its graduates in formal employment. “A woman’s salary in her hand at the end of the month means that she will owe allegiance to herself and not to anyone else,” she says. “It is that autonomy and empowerment that influences women’s independent choices.”

Fida Ouri (Palestinian Authority)
Follow on Twitter: @Nisaa_FM

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Ouri, 23, is the deputy director and webmaster at 96 NISAA FM (“Nisaa” means women in Arabic), the first women’s radio station in the Middle East, based in Ramallah in the West Bank. Ouri, mother of one son, says she’s the only Palestinian female webmaster. Born in New York and educated in Florida, Ouri moved back home after her studies in America to “create more opportunities and options for women.”

Ouri says about 70 percent of Palestinian women use the Internet, yet there is still a dearth of outlets designed to address their concerns. The radio station boasts several programs, including “Qahwa Mazboot” (“Coffee that is just right”), which discusses everything from proper nutrition during pregnancy to workplace decisions.

“We want to inspire women,” she says, “as mothers, as wives, as workers, as people.”

Danya Bashir Hobba (Libya)
Follow on Twitter: @ceoDanya

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Danya Bashir is only 20 years old, but she’s already a business owner. She is a two-time winner (the first and only female) of the United Arab Emirates Young Entrepreneurship competition, helping her launch her company “Relora,” which focuses on stress management. But the biography on her Twitter account reveals her most lofty goal yet: “The next president of Libya.” Just last year, this seemed impossible in a country where Moammar Gadhafi’s notorious “Green Book” of political philosophy decreed that a woman’s place was in the home.

Born in Arizona and educated in the UAE, Bashir spent summers in Libya, but had limited contact with most people, even her relatives.

“My father was a political exile on the blacklist, so I wasn’t able to fully connect to the country,” she says, deeming her father her hero. “The biggest crime Gadhafi committed was corrupting people’s minds.”

During the revolution, Bashir organized shipment for medical treatment and basic needs in Libya. She says 57 percent of the population in Libya is made up of women, and they mostly played a role behind the scenes – running weapons, smuggling medicine and gathering intelligence. With the fall of Gadhafi, they are reveling in a new freedom to mobilize, but the male-dominated, tribally based society still has a long way to go. Though the country has witnessed a blossoming of dozens of nongovernmental organizations led by women, the 51-member Transitional National Council has just one female member.

“They need guidance on all fronts, we are starting from zero,” Danya says, “but the good thing about this is, people here in Libya are motivated and thirsty to learn about their rights, what it means to really be free, and how they can voice their opinions – we just need the place and people to help guide and teach us. We’ll get there.”