#FCBBCA Part 2: Women of the Revolution

by Ivana Davidovic 

Maryam Al-Khawaja from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights comes from a family of activists, many of whom have been on the receiving end of the police brutality in the Kingdom.

So much so that she joked that “Bahrain should adopt family cells in prisons, so family members could spend some time together.”

Her sister Zainab, aka @angryarabia, was arrested on 15 December  during a non-violent sit-in west of Manama. She is one of tens of thousands of women of the revolution.

“Bahrain revolutions is at least 50 per cent made-up and led by women,” says Maryam Al-Khawaja, “It has been breaking a stereotype of Muslim women, according to which they need to have a certain personality if they dress a certain way.”

Al-Khawaja described seeing a video of a traditionally dressed Muslim woman, in the early days of the Bahrain revolution, spraying a graffiti which fully illustrated the steely determination behind the abaya.

“Even if men stop, women will continue.”

Al-Khawajawarned that the revolution in Bahrain was far from over, despite some seemingly positive developments.

Bahraini government set-up an Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was supposed to investigate human rights violations. However, “it is dangerous precedent,” said Al-Khawaja:

“We have an authoritarian regime setting up their own Commission of Inquiry. They will use this report to sweep under the carpet all the human rights violations that they have committed.

 “I don’t think we would have had the same reaction had Mubarak visited London in January 2011. King Hamad and his son came to London a few days ago. His son still has the allegations of torture against him.

 “And yet, there was no huge outcry from the international community. All because of this, so called, human rights report.”

Al-Khawaja was also critical of the media coverage of Bahrain because even well-minded journalists often refer to the uprising there as a “Shia revolution.”

“People came out demanding dignity, human rights and freedom against an oppressive regime. It has nothing to do with them being Shia or Sunni.

Iran is another country where women have been no strangers to revolutions. It also acts as a warning how they can be let down by the exact causes they are so passionately fighting for.

The women’s contribution to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which saw the overthrowing of the Shah, was “rewarded” by curbs on their rights and the interpretation of Sharia law was adopted.

Sussan Tahmasebi worked at grassroot levels for 11 years in her native Iran on promoting women’s rights and strengthening of the civil society.

She is a founding member of the award-winning One Million Signatures Campaign, which collects signatures of Iranians who support an end to gender-biased laws in the country.

Tahmasebi stressed that women in Iran are better educated than men and the average age of marriage was 25. Women are doctors, lawyers, teachers – active participants in the civil society – all of which defies Western stereotypes of women in the Middle East.

“Of the background of the repressive laws that had been adopted 30 years ago, you have a very strong society with women’s presence. Iran has one of the strongest women’s movements in the region.”

During her work in Iran, but also throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Tahmasebi noticed that the greatest challenge for women who advocate for their rights is the “discourse of culture and religion versus human rights.”

“We must remember that human rights and Islam are not mutually exclusive.

“We need to really advocate for a civil law, which takes into consideration universal human rights standards. Because they are universal. They are not only Western. They are just as much Islamic as they are Christian.”

Tahmasebi talked of the danger of women and their rights being sidelined once the political revolutions in the Arab world are over.

She said that the Western world cited “cultural reasons” in their frequently hands-off approach to women’s rights. However, the risk is that the Arab world will fail the democracy test.

“No democracy is going to be a democracy when 50 per cent of the population have half of the rights of the other 50 per cent”

When asked about the political rise of the Islamist parties in post-revolution Arab world, Tahmasebi said:

 “It is still better than the dictatorships we had before. But, what makes me nervous is that some of these Islamic parties are not clear on the specifics. We need to ask questions like What do you think about polygamy? Can you see women in high positions? We need to hold these people accountable.

“These countries have a golden opportunity to to draft constitutions. They need to draft laws that they can defend to their daughters, their children, in 30 years time.”