Where are the Women?

By Vanessa Ortiz 04-29-2011

Well, the last time I checked, women were in the front lines of civil resistance struggles in Bahrain and Yemen. They were strong and present in Egypt, and they're sprouting publicly and over the World Wide Web in large numbers in Libya, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Unlike many others, I am not at all surprised. As Yemeni opposition leader Ali Obaid told CNN: "Yemeni women lead the Yemeni revolution and men follow."

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the recent North Africa and Middle East nonviolent revolutions is the bottom-up media coverage, commentaries, first-hand accounts, and debates led by women from around the world. In the past three months, we've witnessed women moving from the background to the frontlines -- not only in major street protests, but also on the mainstream evening news, as well as across our Facebook pages and the blogosphere.

Women's active participation steadily made headline news (well, almost) during Egypt's revolution, and women such as Mona Eltahawy were absolutely inspiring and enthusiastic advocates for Muslim women as Egypt's revolution unfolded. In late January, Mona vociferously challenged the mainstream media's coverage of Egypt's nonviolent movements, particularly how the word "chaos" was being used to describe the historic events led by ordinary Egyptians. She urged the U.S. and Western countries to "take the side of the people of Egypt." And weeks later, Mona debated other women around France's recent ban on the niqab and burqa in public spaces -- a debate that women, not policy makers, must lead.

For years now, young Egyptian women such as Dalia Zaida and Noha Atef have been blogging courageously behind the scenes, exposing government corruption and abuses, as well as educating the Egyptian public on people power and the history of civil resistance. Dalia was responsible for translating and editing the Arabic version of The Montgomery Story back in 2009, eventually distributing 2,000 copies throughout the Middle East.

Noha is the founder of Torture in Egypt ("Al-Tatheeb fi Masr"), a Web-based campaign that documents and informs about human rights abuses in Egypt. In a 2009 interview during the 2nd Social Arab Bloggers Meeting, Noha discussed her entry to the blogosphere. Both these young women shined brightly at the height of Egypt's revolution. We can see Noha's contributions in how she highlights women's participation, while Dalia offers a sobering reality check on the lack of women's inclusion, cautioning that some of the gains of Tahrir Square are already being lost.

As weeks went by, I observed with pleasure the abundance of "mainstream" information on Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Bahraini women. From the BBC to National Public Radio in the U.S., there seems to be newborn global media interest in the role of women in these nonviolent struggles. I feared, however, that this newfound interest would be short-lived, and many would consider the "gender issue" a passing fad. But this couldn't be further from the truth.

Women from around the world have seized this opportunity, as evidenced by blogs like Feminist Activist to news aggregators like Women Living Under Muslim Laws -- a consistent, timely, and relevant online news source on women's power and activism. Women's Pixels , Ethiopian Feminist, and Rosebell's Blog are three others worth following, as well as In Women's Hands.

One big question I have in my mind is: Are men writing about women in resistance, or women's rights more generally? I am doubtful. Aside from the occasional, passionate appeal by The New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, there are few men making women's rights and their role in community organizing a front-and-center issue. Should this be the case? Well, if nonviolent resistance is about diverse participation and non-elite driven, bottom-up social action, then how can it exclude women as both role models in movements and as leaders when the struggle is over?

At a recent panel discussion at the American Foreign Service Association, I heard a senior U.S. international development official speak about women and development. She stated:

We also have to lead by example. We need to have women in the process, so we have to look at ourselves, too. We have to challenge the culture in the countries we support, and we also have to challenge our own. This means consistently asking simple, direct questions, like: "Where are the women?"

On behalf of so many women activists around the world, I appeal to all men involved in civil resistance to consistently ask that question in their work, when they write, when they plan and strategize, when they teach, when they are filming, when they speak at public events, when they blog, and when they conduct literature reviews and research.

The resources cited above are only a small sampling of the voices and actions of women around the world, a great majority told and shared by women. They are resisting -- challenging the status quo, moving against the tide, and confronting an injustice. Only when we all make the conscious effort to ask, "Where are the women?" can we begin to ensure that men and women are fully represented and working together, as equal partners, in every endeavor -- from revolution to victory.

[This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Waging Nonviolence.]

Vanessa Ortiz is Founder of In Women's Hands. She is formerly Sr. Director of Civil and Field Learning at International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

+Read Sojourners May issue on the Surprising Power of Nonviolence

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