Egyptian woman yelling into a megaphone

Credit: Joseph Hill/nebedaay on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Egyptian female activists are looking for a better constitution and members of the Syrian opposition are concerned about the violence committed by all sides of that conflict against women.

Worsening violence against women in Tunisia is also troubling.

The long and difficult process of democratization is causing many Arab women to seek new ways to describe what their region–and the women in them–are going through.

They reject the term “Arab Spring” and instead use the words “revolution” and “uprisings.”

“What we have witnessed, you cannot call it an Arab Spring,” said Zahra’ Langhi, a gender specialist and political activist from Libya. “The term was coined in the West and imposed on our reality. Whereas if you say it’s a revolution, an uprising, it means it’s a transformation.”

Last week the 57th Commission on the Status of Women began at U.N. headquarters. Violence against women is the overall theme of this year’s two-week-long event.

Karama, an Egypt-based organization working to end violence against women across the Middle East and North Africa, helped host media panels for Arab women at the conference, in conjunction with Equality Now, the New York-based group advocating for the human rights of women and girls around the world.

Along with Langhi, Mervat Tallawy, president of the Cairo-based National Council for Women, was among those invited to New York to speak.

Push for Constitution Changes

At a March 6 event, Tallawy and others promised to fight until the newly adopted Egyptian constitution is changed and guarantees more rights and protections for women.

“Because the regime knows the strength of women they are doing a lot of violation against women,” said Nehad Abd El-Komsan, former secretary-general of the National Council for Women and the chair of the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights. “I believe the power of our Egyptian women will cancel this constitution very soon.”

The Egyptian constitution was drafted by the Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and approved by a two-round referendum on Dec. 22 of last year. It doesn’t mention gender equality and offers a vague notion of equality among citizens, saying they are “equal before the law and equal in rights and obligations without discrimination.”

The text only refers to women as sisters and mothers, putting them purely within the framework of family and not offering room for women in the political and societal spheres.

Fatemah Khafagy founded the Office of the Ombudsperson of Gender Equality in Egypt in 2002 as a program of the National Council of Women. She is now a senior gender consultant in Egypt and other Arab countries for international institutions. When asked on March 5 if she would protest the constitution during elections in Egypt, which had been scheduled for April, she told Women’s eNews she planned to boycott. The next day, however, the Administrative Court of Egypt canceled the elections.

Concern Over Syrian Violence

During another panel, Mouna Ghanem, a member of the Syrian opposition, expressed concern about the radicalization of opposition fighters and denounced the violence committed against women within the country and in the refugee camps in neighboring nations.

“I know that in some countries on the borders of Syria, there are practices of forced marriages and even sexual abuses by the guards and policemen of the country where the refugees are living,” she said.

Ghanem also denounced “human violations” that were being committed by armed opposition groups.

In January, a report from the International Rescue Committee found that Syrian women and girls have been murdered, kidnapped, tortured and sexually attacked by armed men within the country and in the neighboring refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Women and girls cited sexual violence as their main reason for fleeing Syria.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, the Associated Press reported that “scores of the Syrian women who escaped to Jordan are turning to prostitution, some forced or sold into it, even by their families.” Female refugees have also become easy prey for pimps or traffickers, added the article, as Syrian women and girls are now being sold to rich men in the Persian Gulf.

Violence and insecurity have also become a problem for Tunisian women as the Salafists–proponents of a strict interpretation of religious law–have become more physically aggressive.

“They are afraid to go out because of the Salafists who attack anyone who disagrees with them” said Saida Rached, secretary general of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, who spoke on one of the panels.

Rached also said that “a social regression” in Tunisia could harm women’s status. For example, discussion has started in the country about the practice of female genital mutilation of girls, which is currently almost nonexistent in Tunisia. “This is something inacceptable,” she told Women’s eNews. “We never thought this could happen.”

This week, the remarks of Habib Ellouz, an Enahdha member of the National Constituent Assembly, sparked outrage in Tunisia after he stated in a newspaper interview that female genital mutilation is “an aesthetic surgery.”

Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa. Follow her on Twitter @H_NAILI.

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