Arab women on the frontline

Image of Simon Kuper

“I was kidnapped by Muslim Brotherhood gangs,” says Ola Shahba, of Egypt’s Socialist Popular Alliance, on the phone from Cairo. She had been demonstrating against plans for Saturday’s referendum on a constitution that would give President Mohamed Morsi vast powers.

I asked Shahba and three other Arab activists – by chance, all women – about the state of the Arab spring. On December 17 2010, the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, triggering the Arab revolutions. Two years on, where have we got? Do activists remain hopeful? And what makes them risk their lives?

On December 5 Shahba’s group clashed with Brotherhood and Salafin gangs. She says: “Me and my clique were doing some medical aid, and bringing in rocks, people were throwing rocks. Certain things happened, and then I was kidnapped.

“First, they didn’t know I was a woman because I was wearing a helmet and everything. Then in the middle of beating me, my helmet fell off and they discovered I was a woman. I was sexually harassed. They were angry that I was not apologetic for being a woman who’s there. They accused me of having a Molotov cocktail. Then they decided I needed to be killed and burned alive and so on.

“I actually asked to be handed to the police and be beaten by the police, that would have been better, but they refused. Now I look like an ugly beaten-up toy. I’m trying not to see it as a personal issue, that’s something I will have to deal with later. I was not picked because I am me. Many were picked.

“We’re not yet in a civil war but it could start. Especially if interference starts from the military, we can have another Syria. But if the Brotherhood continue what they’re doing, they could be pushing us towards another Lebanon.”

The Syrian activist whom I interviewed at a festival in Italy wanted me to use her name. I haven’t, because I fear for her safety. When we sat down, she opened her purse to show me hundreds of euros that festivalgoers had stuffed into it – donations for the revolution. She said: “Speaking like this, I know I might be arrested, I might be killed, I might be raped, my house might be burned. But I’m not afraid. Even if it will cost me my life, it’s OK, if this will bring change.

“Here I try to speak about how the world fails to help Syrians – the United Nations or Obama. I am sitting with you, and meanwhile people are being killed. Sometimes I get desperate, for example when I read on the internet, ‘Ban Ki-moon [UN secretary-general] expresses his anxiety about what is going on in Syria.’ I don’t want words. These influential people – why do you exist if you are not able to do anything? But after I hear that I get more strength, because nobody is helping us except God and ourselves.”

Maryam al-Khawaja is a Bahraini living in Denmark. Her activist father is in jail in Bahrain; her sister was recently released. Al-Khawaja calls the Bahraini uprising “the inconvenient revolution” because it’s inconvenient to everyone, to western powers and the other Gulf monarchies.

She told me her favourite image from the uprising.“There is a picture where a girl is wearing a shayla [headscarf] and an abaya [traditional cloak]. She has her back to the camera and she is facing dozens of security riot police, in full gear, and she’s holding a flower up. Firstly, it tears apart the stereotype that women who dress a certain way are oppressed by men.

“The second thing is the importance of non-violent struggle. With non-violence you can tell your oppressor that you are controlling the situation, that you are choosing how to react.

A former prisoner told me that after a torture session my father turned to his torturer and said, ‘I forgive you.’ It’s reclaiming the right to be in power over your own situation.”

Like all Nobel peace laureates except Henry Kissinger, Tawakul Karman has acquired the aura of a secular saint. When this smiling little Yemeni in a flowery headscarf fetches her lunch at a conference in Brasilia, everyone wants a photograph with her. She poses cheerfully, though when a Brazilian man drapes an arm over her shoulder, she gently removes it. Finally she sits down with a huge plate of many foods.

How does she assess the Arab Spring’s achievements so far? “I’m not satisfied at all,” says Karman, who was named one of the FT’s women of 2011. “I know revolutions are in steps, especially non-violent revolutions. We finished the first step, which is to take down the regimes. We will be satisfied when we dismantle the corruption networks of the regimes, and establish constitutions founded on the values that people went out to protest for.”

Karman often receives death threats. Is she scared? “There is a real danger. But we decided to get rid of personal fears so we can achieve our goals.”

I still cannot understand why these women keep hammering away despite everything, but they do.

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