Renée Loth

An uprising for women’s rights, too

By Renée Loth
April 16, 2011

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THE TWO women from Egypt had just started their presentation Monday when Leymah Gbowee spoke up from the audience. “I’m sorry to break up this meeting, but I cannot contain my joy,’’ said the peace activist from Liberia. “The president of Ivory Coast has just been captured!’’

The women, gathered for a three-day international leadership summit at the UMass Lowell campus, cheered the news of Laurent Gbagbo’s arrest by opposition forces after a week-long siege. Many women at the summit — from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Europe — have private fears about the fate of their own countries in the wake of popular uprisings. But they share the hope that the political revolutions sweeping the globe will lead to a flowering of rights and opportunities for women — often the first victims of oppression and war.

“Women and girls of all types were part of Tahrir Square,’’ said Mona Makram Ebeid, a former member of the Egyptian parliament, referring to the center of Cairo’s revolution. “It is said there are three deficits in the Arab world: Education, freedom, and women’s empowerment. So women’s issues are no less important than democracy or development.’’ As innumerable global studies have shown, a country’s economic health and security are deeply linked to the status of its women. Even the poorest societies are more stable when children are educated, resources are shared, and women are free. Countries that sideline women not only forfeit the human capital of half their population but also create conditions for unrest. It is no surprise that Ivory Coast ranks fifth-worst in the World Economic Forum’s most recent gender gap index. Egypt, Syria, and Yemen — all countries simmering or embroiled in uprisings — also rank in the bottom 10.

But the period after a revolution can be equally precarious for democracy; things sometimes take an unexpected turn. South Africa’s Barbara Hogan, a white anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned for eight years for joining the banned African National Congress in the 1980s, spoke at the conference about the challenges of rebuilding.

In South Africa, she said, robust affirmative-action programs have helped rebalance a society in which the black majority was utterly dispossessed under apartheid. But a new class of super-wealthy black entrepreneurs and government ministers has evolved, what she called a “bling culture.’’ South Africa may have achieved better racial equality, she said, but income inequality there is among the worst of any country in the world.

Most of the women at the conference were still in the teeth of their countries’ struggles and almost unable to imagine the problem of too much wealth. But Salwa Bayoumi el-Magoli, dean of the faculty of agriculture at Cairo University, also worries about the future. “There is a strong concern that someone might hijack the revolution,’’ she said, ticking off various Islamist factions. “The only thing in their minds is to cover the women and not give them any role in the democracy.’’

Some ominous signs: No woman has been appointed to the committee writing the new Egyptian constitution after Hosni Mubarak’s departure. Only one woman holds a cabinet position in the transitional government. On International Women’s Day, March 8, hundreds of women gathered in Tahrir Square, scene of so much promise, to ask for a greater role in building their new country. They were met by crowds of angry men who shouted at them to go back home, where their proper roles were to “clean and mop.’’

Bayoumi el-Magoli, who served in the upper house of Egypt’s parliament, freely admits she was part of the old order. Corruption and abuse of power made it necessary for Mubarak to go, she said. But she doesn’t want to lose the hard-fought gains women made under his 30-year rule: a law allowing women to divorce their husbands; another permitting women to travel abroad without permission; a third giving women access to their own identification documents, including birth certificates. None of these basic rights was conferred on Egyptian women even 15 years ago.

Forced marriages, condoned rape, ritualized genital mutilation — this is what awaits women in developing societies that don’t treat them as partners. Deposing tyrants is only the beginning.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.