#FCBBCA Part 1: Women of the Revolution

December 17, 2011

 By Helena Williams

The uprisings that shook the Middle East this year have been a focus of relentless debate. ‘Revolutionary Arab women’ – activists, bloggers and academics – took to the streets and fought both for their country and their rights, capturing the western media’s attention and begging the question ‘what does the future hold for these women of the Arab Spring?’ 

Last night’s Frontline Club event, #FCBBCA: Women of the revolution, in association with BBC Arabic, explored the roles women played in the revolutions and tried to shed light on what lies in store for them.

The panel consisted of three completely different women, united by their desire for change: Mervat Mhani, member of Libyan NGO The Free Generation Movement; Maryam Alkhawaja, Bahraini human rights activist and head of foreign relations at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights; and Sussan Tahmasebi, a women’s rights and civil society activist from Iran, and founding member of the One Million Signatures Campaign.

The debate was chaired by Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News’ International Editor. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, Yemeni journalist and founder of Women Journalists Without Chains, was unable to attend the event. 

Although each of the panellist’s contributions to the uprisings were radically different, they were all adamant that women had a key role to play in the future of the Middle East, and were not going to stand back now.

Mhani, a Libyan mother of two who was dubbed an ‘accidental activist’ by Hilsum, described her experiences of wreaking civil disorder, which eventually led to her arrest by Gaddafi’s security forces. Sincere and softly spoken, she apologised to the audience for her nervousness while addressing them:

“I’ve faced Gaddafi’s brigades and interrogation, but this is a lot more difficult,”she joked. 

But despite her shy demeanour, her story demonstrated what a fierce fighter she is.

“Before the revolution I lived a normal life," she said. "When there were uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, I was following very closely. We were wondering whether it would happen in Libya. We had so much fear in us that we didn’t think it was going to happen – I never believed it would.”

But when the Libyan people began to mobilise on social networking sites to protest against the 42 year-long oppressive regime of Muammar Gaddafi, Mhani, like many others, grasped the opportunity to speak out: 

“No Libyan wanted to stay home. We didn’t want to stand for the killing, or the murders, or the regime any more.

“It was very difficult. They started shooting at protesters in Tripoli – there was indiscriminate killing. Protesting wasn’t an option any more – going out was basically suicide.”

The crackdown on protesters forced her and her family to think of alternative, nonviolent ways to do their bit for their country – from her brother returning to Libya from living in Cardiff and starting up The Free Generation Movement – an NGO working towards the development and progression of Libyan society – to committing acts of civil disobedience, and being sure that the world was aware of Gaddafi’s atrocities.

“I hung flags for independence, smuggled reporters from the Rixos hotel, and talked to the international community,”she said.

“The internet was cut, so my brothers and cousins stole a satellite from a government building and tweeted out to the rest of the world. We tried our best – we never carried guns, we were never armed.”

But she was arrested by Gaddafi’s security forces after she was interviewed by Reuters and BBC journalists .

“Someone must have seen the footage and could determine where our location was. Gaddafi’s platoons came to my parents’ house, stormed in, and turned it upside down," she said. “I was one of the lucky ones – I was released at midnight the same day. A lot of people we know just disappeared.”

Despite the relentless threats and attacks on her and her family – her 19 year old cousin was killed by Gaddafi’s forces in August – she remained determined to fight.

She knows there is a difficult road ahead, but Mhani is optimistic about the future of Libya and the role women have to play in it.

“With the NTC [National Transitional Council] having one woman, it’s still early days, I believe. But we’re not going to stand back and not take a role – no way.”

“We tried to do our best, and here we are – and thank God, we’re free.”