CAIRO, March 1, 2012 – This month, and in commemoration of International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, Community Times is dedicating a feature to all Egyptian and Arab women who continue to make history every day.
The Arab Spring has showed everyone around the world that Arab women are a force to be reckoned with, even though the feminist movement in the Middle East has still big strides to take.
We are pleased to have met some of the leading Egyptian ladies and asked their opinion about some of the underlying issues affecting women in Egypt
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A closer look at Dalia Ziada
by Basma Mostafa
The “Change Your World Cairo 2012” summit hosted by Yahoo brought together women of high-caliber and fierce determination to share experiences and opinions about human rights, women’s leadership, journalism and entrepreneurship. The summit paid special heed to the role of new technologies and digital media in enhancing the role of women across the Middle East.
The panel featured Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian rights activist and Egypt office director of the American Islamic Congress and Danya Bashir Hobba, Libyan social activist and business owner
Ziada insisted that the Egyptian laws and regulations concerning women’s rights sound terrific on paper, but they lack the proper mechanisms for real implementation. She explained that it is vital to develop communication with people. “It’s not solely the responsibility of the government; we need to raise awareness about women’s rights and the significance of their roles in the society,” says Ziada. She stressed the importance of changing mainstream ideologies.
The society and the government need to join forces to give women adequate space in the political sphere, as a candidate and decision-maker. “A woman is a key partner in the society,” Ziada notes. She added that allotting a parliamentary quota for women is not a favor, but a right.
The Arab spring didn’t change current perceptions about women. “They (Revolutions) only managed to throttle dictatorship regimes, but we still labor under a dictatorship mentality.” She explained that it was “shameful” to still hold degrading views against women and religious minorities.
Concerning women’s roles in the Arab Spring, Ziada said that in many countries the revolutions wouldn’t have happened hadn’t it been for women. “In Saudi Arabia, for example, women were even more active than men,” she says.
“In Egypt, women constitute more than half the population,” she explains, adding that they had an impact on the 25 January revolution. The presence of women in Tahrir Square even encouraged men to stay. They couldn’t go home when women were filling the square.
“Both men and women stood side by side in Tahrir Square,” she says. “Gender didn’t matter then. We all shared the same hope. But once the regime fell, we were back at square one.” On 8 March, when women marched to the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day, they were asked to go home, because there were other pressing issues.
Ziada added that the number of women who voted in the parliamentary elections was staggering. “I never thought that the Egyptian woman was going to be so involved in the elections.”
“After the revolution, women had a lot of dreams of participation,” she notes. “However, the society rejects this (participation) under a lot of pretexts. There are views that state that women belong inside their own homes and that only men are supposed to work and strive.”
Women who dare deviate from the norm are considered a failure. “Women’s roles have been narrowed down to raising kids and looking after the house, and men need to make money,” she adds. “Life has been reduced down to this basic formula.”
“Men and women are the wings of the same bird. They both need to put in equal work for the bird to soar,” she notes. We need to gradually prepare the society to accept women in leading roles and to give them the chance to prove their potentials. “In time, the society will change and will begin to believe that women can be influential.”
On media and journalism, Ziada added that journalism is the most medium in Egypt that does women justice. “We have female journalists, writers, authors who want to prove that women can succeed,” she says.
“Many television soap operas and shows advocate the notion that women should discuss nothing other than their husbands and kids,” she explains. “These soap operas destroy everything. Talk shows directed at women discuss nothing other than cooking recipes and religious fatwa on husband obedience and child rearing.” She explained that this “reinforces” the dominant stereotypes about women.
We don’t have female-centric developmental TV shows that teach women how to develop themselves by learning new skills and new languages. “Unfortunately, the media is unfair to women.”
Ziada explained that the Internet served as a window opened to women in an ultra-conservative society. “It has helped many women change their lives economically by creating online projects, or politically by voicing their opinions without fear.” However, it’s vital to re-direct the Internet in the right track by teaching young girls in middle and high schools how to have an empowering virtual personality.
“We have been demonstrating for years,” she says, “But the revolution didn’t succeed until online activists communicated with people on the streets. They agreed that every one of them would contact ten people who weren’t active online and tell them of the 25 January demonstrations.”
Although the internet is a powerful communication tool, it’s only so great for freely expressing opinions and bringing together like-minded people, but it’s imperative to understand that it cannot be an engine in the physical world. “The internet has an important role, but we cannot create a great life behind a keyboard,” she clarifies.
Women can’t demand their rights if they are unaware of them. This requires “changing mentalities and mindsets” through raising awareness and providing proper education. Ziada noted that many women are now interested in women rights, unlike before.