“You must put pressure on your government!”
Women have played a central role during the Arab spring, but right after the uprisings, they were unable to claim their obvious place in society. Therefore, it is now especially important that the international community supports civil society and women’s rights activists. This was the message that all the speakers at the seminar entitled “The Arab Spring – backlash for women?” agreed upon.
– But such support does not make sense while, at the same time, arms are being sold to Saudi Arabia, said the Egyptian activist and researcher Marwa Sharafeldin.
The seminar was hosted by The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, The Swedish International Development Cooperation (Sida) and Amnesty International during Almedalen week in Sweden last Tuesday, the 4th of July 2012. Speaking at the seminar were Hana Al-Khamri, a journalist from Yemen, Marwa Sharafeldin, an Egyptian activist and researcher, Gunilla Carlsson, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Fredrik Uggla from the Swedish Embassy in Cairo. Annika Flensburg, Press Secretary at the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, moderated the session.
Marwa Sharafeldin criticized the Swedish government for, on the one hand selling arms to the Saudi government, while at the same time providing support for democracy activists and implementing projects to support women’s rights. It makes no sense, said Marwa Sharafeldin, given that support for the Saudi government provides aid to movements and groups – including the Salafists – who obviously oppose democracy and women’s rights.
– Saudi oil money is behind many sufferings endured in the name of Islam, said Marwa Sharafeldin.
The seminar discussed, among other things, the role of civil society during and after the revolutions, the type of support needed in the current building phase, the place of women’s rights and the relationship between Islam and feminism. The latter was an issue Marwa dwelled on further.
– First, we must agree that patriarchy exists in both the North and the South. We also have to agree that patriarchy is alive and that it thrives in both secular and religious contexts. The dividing lines are not between secular and religious, she said, but between social and gender equality on one hand – and oppression, patriarchy and ferocious capitalism, that is ruining whole communities, on the other hand.
She also pointed out that Islamic groups are present in many forms – progressive, fanatical, violent and peaceful – and that we must keep this in mind when we talk about Islam and feminism, as well as when we talk about the current situation in Egypt.
– It is important to understand that religion is part of the social fabric of our society. It must be remembered that during the revolution first 18 days, no one called for the implementation of sharia law, we demanded bread, dignity, freedom and social justice.
Marwa further explains that the reason why Muhammad Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, was newly elected as president was that the Muslim Brotherhood helped provide people with their basic needs, such as food and water when the state was totally absent.
– For the feminist movement in Egypt, the challenge is to work within the religious discourse. When religious conservatives start attacking women’s rights, we have to be able to respond to them in the same language they use.
She also directed an appeal to feminists in Sweden, who want to support the struggle of feminists in the Arab world.
– You must put pressure on your government to stop selling weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia!
Hana Al-Khamri from Yemen concurred. Yemen is located next to Saudi Arabia and ends ups in a vulnerable position when Saudi Arabia feels threatened by the Yemeni people’s struggle for democracy. A militarily strong Saudi Arabia is paralyzing to the democratic process, she pointed out.
As regards the situation in Yemen, Hana Al-Khamri explained that attitudes to women’s participation in the political process vary widely, both among women themselves, as well as among religious leaders. And while some began to question women’s participation in street protests and calling for them to go home and take care of their children,others stated that it was actually women’s duty to take part in the uprising. Although there are many signs of a backlash for women, women have been – and remain – highly involved during the protests. They have protested against an increased separation between men and women and demonstrated under the slogan “No spring without women”.
Marwa Sharafeldin also said that it is important to support those working for women’s participation in revolutions, and to be aware of how religion is used for political purposes. Conservatives manipulate the fact that people value religion to achieve their own political goals.
– There are other alternatives, and other religious discourses that are more pluralistic, democratic and equal.
Updated in: 2013-03-22