Arab women take to the streets

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Arab nations this week have included more women.

Modestly dressed women in head scarves drop their books and charge riot police in Alexandria as two male colleagues are beaten to death. In Cairo, female students throw stones and denounce police officers guarding the Israeli Embassy. These are not the images that Egypt – nor any country in the Arab world – expected to see this year in their streets from their own women.

A new female militancy has arrived with a vengeance as both social analysts and women's groups struggle to define the "new Arab woman" – one with a newborn conscience. The mass demonstrations against Israeli violence that have swept Middle Eastern cities have, for the first time ever, seen an equal proportion of female and male demonstrators. "We are amazed by the amount of solidarity being shown in the streets by Arab women, particularly in conservative Gulf societies, where women have moved – for the first time – into the street," says Doris Frangieh, a foreign relations official with the Cairo-based Palestinian Women's Union.

Israel's offensive in the West bank has sparked a new political awakening among moderate Arab women, experts say. Even the mention of the name of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon elicits an outpouring of anger among Egyptian women, and calls for revenge.

"A person who kills women and children must be burned to death, not just killed," says Walaa Samir, a female student at Cairo University, which has been rocked by enraged protests against Israel in recent days.

And like dozens of Egyptian women interviewed in the streets in the past few days, Ms. Samir defends the actions of a new kind of Arab heroine, the female suicide bomber – far better known here as a "self-sacrificer."

"These women are heroes of Islam for defending our holy land," says Samir, a demure-looking young lady, whose head is covered in a pale yellow scarf clipped together at the neck. "If they can kill only half as many as the Israelis are killing, that will be great!"

Hala Mustafa, an analyst for the Al-Ahram Newspaper Group in Egypt, says the outpouring of political opinion sweeping through the ranks of Arab women represents – in a peculiar way – a return to the "liberation struggles" that the region went through when it threw off the shackles of colonialism.

"During the anti-British uprisings in 1919, women emerged for the first time to play a key role in national and public affairs," she says. In that respect, she says, the latest outpouring of anger is unlikely to provoke a broader women's-rights or human-rights struggle in Egypt.

"Look across the Arab world and you won't see women demonstrating for anything very modern and this does not amount to real political participation," she says. "The demonstrators are conservatively dressed in headscarves and they are leaning more towards the Islamist and conservative side of Egyptian politics."

Indeed, Ms. Mustafa says that the Palestinian and Arab militants who have brought female suicide bombers into the fray as a key to their new strategy of attacking Israel have done it for their own political ends – "to broaden or generalize the liberation struggle" across the Arab world, not to help liberate women in any way.

While some analysts here see women as "better bombers," because they are less likely to be suspected when they enter a restaurant or cafe, Ms. Mustafa says that their use by Palestinian militant groups is designed to "embarrass the Israeli regime and show that things are so desperate that women are fighting instead of men."

Women in moderate Arab states like Jordan and Egypt are publicly being encouraged by their governments to show their solidarity with the suffering of the Palestinian masses.

In Jordan, Queen Rania led thousands of women, many of them from Palestinian refugee families, in a solidarity "brunch and march" last week in support of human rights in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Likewise, in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak's wife, Suzanne Mubarak, has stressed in recent speeches that, "it is women who pay the price of violence and terrorism." She has urged women to speak out in favor of an independent Palestinian state.

Such calls by leading women for political activism directed at a "free Palestine" have received massive news coverage across the Arab world. On the other hand, women's rights issues, as such, including violence against women, legal equality, and the right to education are often pushed under the carpet by the male-dominated Arab media, say leading women's rights groups here.

Nehad Abu El-Kosam, the executive director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, sees the issue of human rights in Palestine as an obstacle that must first be overcome before her own movement can continue to push ahead.

"The Palestinian issue has become our top priority," she says. "When you speak with people on the street, they demand action. In that respect, the Palestinian issue is pushing aside everything else we do, putting our women's rights agenda on the backburner."

Ms. El-Kosam says her group, like other women's groups in Egypt, has been trying desperately to come up with ways of helping the Palestinian cause. The answer? Several women's groups have developed plans to press for a new popular economic embargo against goods being sold by Israel and the United States, its main backer.

"Our slogan will be: 'No one can do it like women!'"' says Ms. El-Kosam, who points out that women in the Arab world have massive economic clout, since they usually control the family purse strings.

The massive outpouring of sympathies on the "Arab street" by Arab women, both Christian and Muslim, suggests that the new "political awakening" might have less to do with the influence of Islamic movements than human empathy, say some analysts.

Indeed, the sentiments being expressed by women in Egypt's normally soft-spoken and reserved Coptic Christian community – which includes some 15 percent of the population in Cairo – are strikingly similar to those voiced by the country's Muslim population.

Marianne Adel, a university student, calls Sharon a "criminal and a murderer." She says that women in her Coptic community have been appalled by the Israeli offensive on the West Bank. "I'm against suicide bombing, but it seems to me that these women have little choice at all anymore," she says.

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