Women of Cairo take to the streets

Labour Party

Thousands of women took to the streets in Cairo yesterday to protest their treatment at the hands of the security forces.

The protests were in part a reaction to horrific images of a woman being beaten and stripped during clashes in Tahrir Square.  There have also been reports of virginity tests being given to female protestors who have been detained in the last few months, as well as sexual harassment and intimidation.

This is at a time when as many as 13 protestors have been killed in clashes with the armed forces.

It is very sad that the promise that was given earlier this year for a free and democratic Egypt is now under threat from a military that don’t seem to understand the feelings of the Egyptian people.  From the footage of yesterday’s march it seems that women from all walks of life were involved, and they were accompanied by a large contingent of men.

The events in Egypt recently are very sad but the sight of women who refuse to be cowed by the oppressive methods used by the military is very heartening.  During the Arab Spring it was always interesting to see the involvement of women in the uprisings, with some of the most prominent figures being female.

In fact, one of the recent recipients of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize was an Egyptian woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, who helped organise protests earlier this year.

Hilary Clinton spoke on this issue recently during a lecture to Georgetown University. She said:

“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people”.

I couldn’t agree more.  The only way the dream of freedom and democracy will be fully realised anywhere in the world is with men and women standing side by side as equals.  This is something that the protestors yesterday clearly understood and I can only hope that the current military regime will listen.

Sakharov Prize 2011 Awarded to Arab Spring

Labour Party

Five people who played a major role in the Arab Spring were awarded the European Parliament Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought today.

This nomination was submitted jointly by the three main political groupings in the European Parliament as well as the Greens.

It’s an enormous privilege for the parliament to be able to give this award every year and the stories of these brave people are truly inspirational.  Though there is still a lot of work to do across the Arab world to ensure that freedom and democracy are properly and lastingly brought about, these five people have helped lead the way in what must be one of the most extraordinary instances popular uprising history has ever seen. 

The five winners of the prize were:

Asmaa Mahfouz

Ms Mahfouz joined the Egyptian April 6th Youth Movement in 2008, helping to organise strikes for fundamental rights. Sustained harassment of journalists and activists by the Mubarak regime as well as the Tunisian example prompted Ms Mahfouz to organise her own protests. Her Youtube videos, Facebook and Twitter posts helped motivate Egyptians to demand their rights in theTahrir Square. After being detained by the Supreme Council of Armed forces, she was released on bail due to pressure from prominent activists.

Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi

Mr Ahmed al-Sanusi, also known as the longest-serving “prisoner of conscience”, spent 31 years in Libyan prisons as a result of an attempted coup against Colonel Gaddafi. A member of the National Transitional Council, he is now working to “achieve freedom and race to catch up with humanity” and establish democratic values in post-GaddafiLibya.

Razan Zaitouneh

Ms Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer, created the Syrian Human Rights Information Link blog (SHRIL) which reports on current atrocities inSyria. She publicly revealed murders and human rights abuses committed by the Syrian army and police. Her posts have become an important source of information for international media. She is now hiding from the authorities who accuse her of being a foreign agent and have arrested her husband and younger brother.

Ali Farzat

Mr Farzat, a political satirist, is a well-known critic of the Syrian regime and its leader President Bashar al-Assad. Mr Farzat became more straightforward in his cartoons when the March 2011 uprisings began. His caricatures ridiculing Bashar al-Assad’s rule helped to inspire revolt inSyria. In August 2011, the Syrian security forces beat him badly, breaking both his hands as “a warning”, and confiscated his drawings.

Mohamed Bouazizi

Mr Bouazizi, a Tunisian market trader set himself on fire in protest at incessant humiliation and badgering by the Tunisian authorities. Public sympathy and anger inspired by this gesture led to the ousting of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mr Bouazizi’s self-immolation also sparked uprisings and vital changes in other Arab countries such asEgyptandLibya, collectively known as the “Arab Spring”.

Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought

The Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, named in honour of the Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov, has been awarded by the European Parliament every year since 1988 to individuals or organizations that have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy. The prize is accompanied by an award of €50,000.

The appalling position of women elsewhere must not blind us to the dire state of our own.

Labour Party

Today the Guardian published an interview piece with Harriet Harman; talking about the state of women’s empowerment and political involvement both within the UK and the democratising countries of North Africa. 

The state of women’s rights in the Arab Spring countries is one of the most salient current topics within women’s politics. It is true that the danger posed to women in that region and the possibility of regression in terms of women’s rights is a major concern at the moment and one which the Women and Equalities Committee in the Parliament is taking seriously. On Monday we have a workshop discussing how the EU can best force the issue of women’s rights and empowerment onto the democratising agendas of Egypt and Tunisia. To this end, I support Harriet’s demands that aid to the region be tied to the observance of women’s rights. This opportunity to change the landscape for women in that region of the world must not be missed. 

However, often by focussing on problems overseas, by which dismal standards the UK does compare favourably, it can often blind us to the very real problems that still exist within our own country. This blindness can often lead us into hypocrisy. This is pointed out by Harriet when she notes that the UK government is sending delegations of men to other countries to lecture about women’s rights since our international development office has no women. 

The right that the Conservative government has to lecture that region on women’s rights is also dubious since, for example, whilst condemning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Africa, it has demolished services set up by the Labour government to prevent FGM occurring on its own soil. This means more women within the UK will now be vulnerable to this abominable practice. We must also remember that this is the same government whose leader still finds it acceptable to make sexist comments to women in Parliament and whose party is so entirely divorced from the reality of most women’s lives that they have almost no idea how unfairly their policies impact upon women in the UK.

The Labour Party and the women within it are rightfully fighting for women in the UK, battling against the return of a fundamentally patriarchal and misogynist political group, even on time-worn battlegrounds such as abortion rights. Our Labour MEPs are also fighting for women in terms of maternity leave, gender pay gaps, preventing violence against women and reminding member states how their policies need to take the effect upon women into consideration. Having said this however, we have still never had a female leader and women remain underrepresented within the party, particularly in Westminster.

I believe Labour is different from the Conservatives. In terms of  gender empowerment the Labour Party is firmly within this century. The Tories, as Harriet Harman said, are still living in the last. But we need to do more. We cannot be complacent simply because the Tories are so much worse. This is why I support Harriet’s demands for a change in our leadership elections to ensure that women are part of the leadership and for a 50-50 gender balance of elected representatives. Our country is half women. Whilst men should also fight for women, women need to be in power to represent women and not just in Africa.