Taking their cue from the Arab Spring, but fearing a backlash from Islamists the uprisings brought to power, Arab cyber activists have embarked on a daring campaign urging women fight for equality.
“The uprising of women in the Arab World” is the title of the Facebook page where the campaign was launched on October 1 to highlight “discrimination” against women in the Arab world.
Within days, the number of “likes” that the page has attracted has increased from about 20,000 to almost 35,000.
Some 500 people, mostly women but also a surprising number of men, have posted pictures with statements of support, some even challenging religious and traditional taboos.
“We expected a response because we knew that women were holding out for a platform (to air their grievances)… but this response has been astonishing,” Diala Haidar, one of four organisers of the campaign, told AFP by telephone.
The campaign began amid an outcry in Tunisia and Egypt, the first two countries to oust their long-serving autocrats in the Arab uprisings, over serious threats to women’s rights from newly installed Islamist rulers.
In Tunisia, civil society groups were outraged after a woman who was raped by two policemen found herself last month facing a charge of indecency.
In Egypt, activists were enraged over leaked proposed drafts of the new constitution suggesting a lower marriage age for women, legalising female circumcision and the use of Islamic jurisprudence in a way that could limit women’s rights to work and education.
“Revolutions aim to achieve freedom, justice and dignity. These could not be fully achieved if women are to remain in the back seat,” said Haidar, a Lebanese physicist by profession.
“There has been disappointment” over the sidelining of women in politics, she said, pointing out that “women were not standing idle during the revolts, when they faced bullets and got dragged on the streets” by security forces.
Haidar kicked off the campaign along with fellow Lebanese Yalda Younes, Palestinian Farah Barqawi, and Egyptian Sally Zohney — active rights campaigners in their respective countries.
Among the aims of the campaign is to stir debate “over the situation of women, mainly after the backlash they faced following the success of revolutions in (some) Arab Spring countries,” said a statement.
The group asks supporters to write “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world”, and why, on a paper or computer screen, to take a picture of themselves with the statement and post it on the Facebook page.
Tamara Reem and Yousif Abbas are Palestinians who posed in a picture with written statements.
Reem’s read: “I support the Arab women’s uprising because my virginity is my business,” while Abbas wrote that he supported the cause because a woman’s “virginity is her business.”
Such declarations have not gone down well with some zealous visitors to the website who have plastered the page with insults, although this has failed to stem the flow of supporters.
“I am with the uprising… because my body is mine and you don’t have the right to sexually harass me,” wrote Nihad Mohammed from Egypt. “No to rape. No to violence,” wrote Farah Joy from Tunisia.
Fatimah from Lebanon carried a statement saying she backed the cause because her “honour and moral values cannot be represented by just a hymen”.
Assil, a Palestinian, was more daring: “I’m sick and tired. I wish I had a penis so that I can go out whenever I want, just like my brother,” read her message.
She was highlighting the restrictions imposed by traditional Arab families on the movement of their daughters for fear of committing acts that could tarnish a family’s honour.
Sarah from Yemen highlighted the problem of child marriage and marital rape in her impoverished nation.
Abdulkarim, a 16-year-old Saudi, ridiculed a law that makes younger male members of families responsible for adult women in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
“According to law, I am the guardian for my widowed mother!” he wrote.
Larissa from Lebanon wrote: “A Lebanese woman should have the right to pass her nationality to her children,” highlighting a dilemma for mothers married to foreigners in several Arab states.
Based on Islamic jurisdiction, men get the upper hand in courts when it comes to divorce, child custody and inheritance.
Social traditions relegate women to the level of second-class citizens, subjecting them to various restrictions depending on how patriarchal her society is.
“Our aim is (the implementation of) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CEDAW” or Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, said Haidar.
Most Arab states that are CEDAW signatories have reservations on articles stipulating equal rights for women and men, mainly in matters related to marriage and nationality of children.
“We have to continue the revolution to oust male chauvinism that turns every man into a dictator over his wife, daughter, sister, and even mother,” said a campaign statement.