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Women of the Middle East

What comes after the revolution?

At a recent London debate on the Tunisian revolution, a panelist said that, unlike in other countries of the Arab Spring, Tunisian women were very at the forefront of the movement. So the other Middle Eastern uprisings were fought by men, I questioningly thought, looking at the all male panel.

Thankfully, the female panel at this Friday's Frontline Club debate in London, rectified some of these assumptions.

'We need to break stereotypes that exist in the Western world', says the Bahraini human rights activist Mayram Al Khawaja from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Her sister, Zeinab Al Khawaja (also known by her Twitter name @angryarabiya) was detained on 15 December during a sitting protest in Manama's Pearl Square - Bahrain's Tahrir.

In Bahrain, says Al Khawaja, half of the protesters are women - they read poetry, gave speeches and shared their idea's of the country's future. Other movements have been lead by women, such as the Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts a week ago. Of course there are differences between and within regions, but as Al Khawaja agues out, Islam and women's rights are not mutually exclusive and although Bahrain is a very religious country, women have professionally proven themselves in different sector of society.

Bahrain, where protests have again flared up over the last few days, is currently under the constitutional monarchy of King Hamad Al-Khalifa who visited the UK last week. The protesters (Al Jazeera has a very good documentary on the uprisings) are demanding a secular civil government.

'People have come to the realisation that you need to separate religion from government because you will never find an entire population that agrees on what Islam means, or what Sharia means,' explains Al Khawaja.

One of the major challenges for women in the Middle East, says Al Khawaja, is what they will do once the revolution is successful. With the strong and increasing anti-western sentiments in the Arab world - and after Western wars and dealings in region, who can blame them - she says that change must come from within. The women are treading a fine line - they have to be careful that women's rights are not rejected as Western ideology. If the development is slow, so be it, she argues, as long as it comes from within - otherwise the system will not work.

Women found a voice in the revolution, says Mervat Mhani of the Libyan Free Generation Movement and a housewife and mother before the revolution. They cannot go back after to the lives they lived before. Of course they don't have political experience, she says, but after 42 years of Gaddafi dictatorship, neither do the men. The recently elected Libyan transitional government only however only has one female minister, Mabrouk Sherif, who is responsible for Social Affairs. 'It's early days', says Mhani.

Sussan Tahmasebi, a US-Iranian women's and civil rights activist who was also present at the debate, was however more adamant her view of the golden opportunity that the countries have, in drafting their new constitutions:

'Let the people who want lesser value choose that for themselves, but let's not put it in the law,' she argues. 'Draft laws that you can defend in 30 years. Draft it in such a way that the system that you devise, doesn't crush you'.

Arab and North African regions, may have to go through a period where conservative governments are in power and women's social status will in many cases be compromised, the panelists agreed, but it is down to their legal rights, whether women will gain a better position in years to come, or not.



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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The Conversation