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Women inspired by Arab uprisings

Hope, caution among activists around the world

By Bill Varner
Bloomberg News / March 13, 2011

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UNITED NATIONS — Azza Kamel, a women’s rights advocate in Egypt, says the popular uprisings in her country and its neighbors are creating new opportunities for women.

“There was no difference between women who were veiled or not veiled,’’ Kamel said at the United Nations in New York, referring to the protests that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. “The revolution created a land as free for women as for men.’’

Whether the turmoil in the Arab world will yield progress toward full political and economic rights for women is unclear, said Isobel Coleman, author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Woman Are Transforming The Middle East’’ and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“It could go either way,’’ Coleman said. “In a country like Egypt, where you have powerful Islamist groups and a very influential mainstream that appeals to Islam, women will have to navigate very carefully. The same is true in Tunisia.’’

Kamel and other women from the region took part recently in meetings that marked the one-year anniversary of UN Women, the UN agency created to promote women’s rights. They asked UN officials to help them solidify gains and seize opportunities to end some of the world’s most repressive laws and practices.

The 2009 UN Arab Human Development Report said women “find themselves in a subservient position within the family and receive little protection from the legal system against violations inflicted by male family members.’’ It cited sexual and psychological abuse, female genital mutilation, forced child marriage and prostitution, and trafficking in women.

“Help us break the cycle of fear,’’ Nora Rafeh, a graduate student in political science in Egypt, said after coming to New York from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the head of UN Women, vowed to use her annual $500 million budget to help Arab women become more involved politically and economically.

Bachelet said she wants Arab leaders to learn that every nation loses economically by failing to enhance women’s rights.

“It is a great opportunity,’’ Bachelet said of the protests that have shaken governments from Morocco to Iran. “This is a very important moment in which the momentum won’t be lost.’’

No woman was named to the committee to draft a new Egyptian constitution, Coleman noted, and she cautioned democracy is likely to bring Islamist groups into Tunisia’s political mix. Laws affecting women in Egypt and Tunisia are some of the most progressive in the region, so there is potential for backsliding.

Washington-based Vital Voices, which identifies and trains women with leadership potential around the world, organized a four-day workshop, sponsored by the US State Department, in Amman, Jordan, last month. The nongovernmental organization was concerned about potential retaliation against participants and minimized advance publicity.

“We didn’t want to put the women at risk,’’ said Christine German, the Vital Voices regional program manager.

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