Qatar’s World Cup Spectacle Brought to You by Slavery November 23, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Qatar, Sports.
Tags: 2022 world cup, construction workers, fifa, labor, michelle chen, qatar, qatar labor, qatar world cup, slave labor, soccer, sports, teex, texas a&m, worker rights, world cup, world cup facilities
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The big controversies surrounding Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup have been the shady bidding process and fears that the desert heat will ruin the soccer games. But in the past few days, the spotlight has finally begun to move to longstanding concerns over the treatment of the migrant workers who will be building the physical infrastructure for the sporting bonanza.
Throughout the summer, according to an investigation by Amnesty International [PDF] released this week, the future site of the sporting spectacle became a death trap for the Asian workers brought in by Qatar and its booming construction industry to work on the building sites of the planned World Cup facilities, including commercial areas and transportation infrastructure.
Amnesty found that the workers were encamped in sweltering heat, fell from precarious heights and suffered heart failure under the strenuous labor conditions. One Nepalese official described the entire system of indenture as an “open prison,” according to Der Spiegel. In light of dozens of reported deaths, union activists predict that up to 4,000 may die on the sites between now and the 2022 games.
Through interviews with the World Cup construction workers, the Amnesty investigators gathered horrific stories of an array of abuses, including “not being paid for six or nine months; not being able to get out of the country; not having enough—or any—food; and being housed in very poor accommodation with poor sanitation, or no electricity.”
Workers testified that migrants were frequently forced to work for poverty-level wages or sometimes none at all. Often, they said, employers confiscated their identification documents, effectively holding them hostage out of fear of being detained for lacking papers.
Unfortunately, while horrific, these stories are far from unique in Qatar. More than 90 percent of the labor that fuels the country’s oil-slicked economy is imported, typically brought in by recruiters from South Asian countries. Not only are these migrant workers non-citizens; in the eyes of their employers, they are barely human. They live in barbaric, squalid dormitories, their movement restricted, invisible under Qatari law and cut off from their home communities.
Under the transnational migrant “sponsorship” system, according to Amnesty, workers were drawn into the labor trade by recruiting agents who falsely advertised decent, high-paying work abroad–sometimes taking on heavy debt to secure a job. The byzantine residence permit system further disenfranchises workers. When employers illegally fail to arrange permits for workers, as was frequently the case in the shadowy migrant labor market, they generally cannot return home without paying extremely heavy fines. The restrictions on migrant workers’ movement mean that “rather than protecting the rights of migrant workers, the government is adding to their exploitation,” Amnesty contends.
Underlying the whole system are fundamentally weak protections for labor organizing on the part of Qataris and migrants alike, as well as prohibitions on migrants forming trade unions. The lack of organization among workers means many migrants remain in the dark about their labor rights. One Nepalese worker explained to Amnesty, “There are many workers who keep working like donkeys, without asking a question. They don’t understand what is legally our entitlements, what our rights are.”
Some have tried to challenge employers. According to the report, the Labour Ministry and the courts have each received thousands of worker complaints, many related to basic wage and hour and other labor issues. But due to fear of retaliation and the difficulty non-Qataris face in navigating the justice system, most aggrieved workers, according to investigators, probably do not go through with the complaint process in the first place.
One worker with the U.S.-based electro-mechanical engineering contractor Krantz Engineering wrote in a desperate letter to Amnesty in April 2013 about his lack of legal recourse for his abuse:
I am writing this email after lots of pain and struggle … I have complained in several places like Labour court, Indian Embassy, High court, CID and National Human Rights Council Qatar but no any positive response from anyone of them … I don’t have money to eat food from last five days as I didn’t get salary from last nine months.
Not all of the employers using this labor are Qatar-based—the report linked multinationals such as Hyundai Engineering and Construction and OHL Construction to the subcontractors building the World Cup-related facilities. In the case of Krantz, Amnesty discovered that one of the company’s subcontractors was receiving technical training from a company called TEEX, which is affiliated with Texas A&M University. When questioned by Amnesty about the treatment of migrants, Texas A&M argued the firm “does not have any role in the management and supervision of the labor force at the facility.”
Amid international criticism from Amnesty and other organizations like the UN, Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee, a managing body for the preparation for the games, has vowed to address the reported abuses, and FIFA has issued similar comments. In a formal response to the Guardian published in September, the committee cited numerous labor protections available to migrants, including restrictions on passport confiscation.
But Sharran Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation tells Working In These Times via email she is unconvinced by Qatar’s promises. “Qatar continues to announce that it will reform the visa sponsorship system, yet nothing changes,” she says. In the wake of mounting criticism over the human rights issues surrounding the event, she adds, “Unless Qatar reforms its ways, FIFA should re-run the vote for the 2022 World Cup.”
There is also a question of who is directly responsible for regulating labor issues. Amnesty’s report focused on infrastructure construction related to the World Cup but not just the stadium itself—including transportation and supporting commercial facilities. In any case, the primarily responsibility, argue human rights advocates, lies with Qatar to reform its overall labor laws and to tighten oversight of private sector labor practices, particularly for international-sporting projects aimed at creating a global commercial spectacle.
This is not the first time FIFA has come under political pressure; earlier this year, populist protests erupted over the lavish costs of the preparations for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Though FIFA generally urges host countries to comply with international human rights, the World Cup is notorious for inducing local labor violations. For example, labor activists have condemned FIFA for not taking strong enough action against Russia’s temporary suspension of key labor protections for the migrant workers at the building sites for the 2018 World Cup.
The human rights crises haunting World Cup stadiums reveal global sport’s economic realities: the commercial spectacle that brings the world together is built on vast inequalities.
Banana Republic Legacy Thrives in Today’s Latin America February 18, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Guatemala, Labor, Latin America.
Tags: anti-union, banana republic, cafta, central america, delmonte, dole, Free Trade, guatemala, labor, labour, Latin America, michelle chen, roger hollander, unions, wal-mart, worker rights
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The term “banana republic” has become a cliche to describe economic imperialism throughout history, but the legacy of colonialism persists in Latin America today. The tradition of predatory capitalism echoed in the recent death of Miguel Angel González Ramírez, a member of the Izabal banana workers’ union SITRABI in Guatemala.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the unionist was “shot several times whilst carrying his young child in his arms.” This seems to be another casualty in a labor battle between labor and corporateers who would rather see workers shed blood than be paid fair wages.
The ITUC has demanded an official investigation, noting that in the past year several unionists have been killed or targeted with threats. Last October, SITRABI member Pablino Yaque Cervantes was shot by an unidentified attacker, according to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP).
Manuela Chávez of the ITUC’s Department of Human and Trade Union Rights told In these Times, “Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively have been endangered by a very high anti-union repression for years,” adding that the threats to unionists are aggravated by government inaction.
But it’s not just the cruelty of the killing–nor the connection to the infamous banana crop–that evokes a history of enslavement and dehumanization of indigenous, African and migrant peoples. The company in question, BANDEGUA, is a Del Monte subsidiary that has come under fire for refusing to comply with the Guatemalan government’s minimum wage standards.
The incident reflects business as usual in the banana industry, well known for oppressive working conditions. Labor advocates have long protested unfair wages and other violations in Latin American agriculture, especially under international giants like Dole.
The crisis has reached a boiling point under the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a NAFTA-style trade regime that expanded multinationals’ power over the region’s industrial and agricultural sectors. Evidence of systemic abuses prompted SITRABI and other Guatemalan unions, along with the AFL-CIO, to initiate a worker rights complaint in 2008. As documented by US LEAP, the campaign cites violations of union rights as well as outright brutality, “including the 2007 murder of the brother of the General Secretary of the union.”
It remains to be seen whether there will be any consequences for the latest killing, but if past is prologue, Del Monte will likely remain comfortably insulated from labor troubles in the recesses of its global empire. After all, that’s what trade systems like CAFTA have been designed to do, with their notoriously flimsy labor provisions. SITRABI’s activists are veterans of this war of attrition, having led global efforts to raise awareness of the rampant human rights abuses in the industry, from terrorizing violence to illegal firings to lack of collective bargaining protections.
Noting that the CAFTA complaint still drags on as the body count ticks up, Lupita Aguila Arteaga, executive director of the advocacy group STITCH, told In These Times:
This prolonged process shows how ineffective CAFTA is at protecting the rights of workers. The U.S. needs to continue to pressure the Guatemalan government to obey its own labor laws and uphold its labor rights obligations as mandated in the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
STITCH points out that labor violations in the banana industry are deeply entwined in global trade networks that send cheap fruit to hungry U.S. consumer markets. Since even so-called “fair trade certified” bananas may come from nonunion plantations, Arteaga says, American appetites are driving a hemispheric race to the bottom:
The banana industry in Latin America is facing a decline in unionization rates and wages. Companies like Wal-Mart are now buying directly from Latin American producers where unions do not exist and therefore labor and prices are cheaper. Banana companies are trying to stay afloat of this game by moving their production to other areas that can allow them to make a bigger profit by paying workers less and not providing any benefits.
Perhaps the best hope challenging Latin America’s labor injustices won’t come from government or consumer campaigns, but from within–a surge in progressive unionism led by women. In a report on women banana workers (informed by a documentary project on feminist labor struggles), Arteaga describes how the fight for gender equity has become a wellspring of self-empowerment:
Bananeras, as they are dearly called, have achieved victories we can only dream of in the U.S., including clauses in their union contract that allows them to take a paid day off for a mammogram and/or a pap smear, union-wide campaigns with workshops against domestic violence, as well as union-led campaigns against HIV/AIDS with a focus on reproductive justice and accessibility to healthcare for all women in their communities. Not to mention the fact that ALL local banana unions have a women’s committee.
Today’s banana republic is still rife with neocolonial horrors, but if you unpeel the layers of bitter struggle surrounding these communities, you might find some surprisingly sweet triumphs.
Tags: child labor laws, child labour, child welfare, children, dhild labor, farm work, labor, labor laws, labour, labour laws, michelle chen, newt gingrich, roger hollander, work ethic, youth employment
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Roger’s note: as world capitalism collapses, it seeks desperately for new sources of cheap labor; American industry, aided by government, has discovered incredibly cheap prison labor; and now, apparently, it will be going after our children. Imagine our kids competing with coolies in China, Singapore, the Philippines and other cheap labour sources around the globe. That surely will instill a great “work ethic” in them.
Published on Thursday, January 12, 2012 by The Nation
It’s been a long time since the engines of American industry were driven by tiny fingers. So when Newt Gingrich recently proclaimed, “Young people ought to learn how to work,” and suggested that children could develop a strong work ethic by working as janitors in their own schools, many Americans probably missed the throwback to the early twentieth century, when hundreds of thousands of children toiled in factories. But after decades of campaigns against youth exploitation, the right is rekindling vestiges of the sweatshop era with legislation aimed at rolling back child labor laws.
While they didn’t go so far as to recruit tweens back to the factory floor, throughout 2011 state legislators pushed bills to erode regulation of youth employment. Maine Republicans sought to ease protections for young workers with amicably named legislation to “Enhance Access to the Workplace for Minors.” The original bill, introduced by State Representative David Burns, would remove some limits on working hours for teenagers and expand the number of days a youth under 20 could work for $5.25 an hour—to about half a year. That would be a bargain for employers, who pay adult Mainers a minimum wage of $7.50. Last summer, a more limited teen labor bill passed, which only eased restrictions on working hours.
Dismissing his bill’s critics in a Press-Herald commentary, Burns argued the purpose was simply to provide job-seeking youth valuable opportunities, since many “have no experience, and perhaps no work ethic, and don’t merit the minimum wage until they learn a job.” As for government safeguards against abuse, he added, “We have usurped the responsibility of families to make intelligent decisions and transferred that responsibility to school officials and the state.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s legislature, following a vicious battle with unions over protections for collective-bargaining rights, repealed regulations on the hours that 16- and 17-year-olds could work during the school week and breaks.
In Missouri, Republican State Senator Jane Cunningham proposed removing restrictions on hiring kids under age 14 and on the hours and times of day that teens can work. Touting the policy as “common sense,” Cunningham argued last February, “We’re not doing students any favor by telling them, ‘You cannot work.’ ”
Though changes in laws would not trump the overarching restrictions in federal labor regulations—which generally set 14 as a minimum employment age, with exceptions for agricultural work and some other types of jobs—advocates say state-level rollbacks undermine critical protective standards. “Kids in these states can now be made to work longer hours, later into the night,” Anne Thompson, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, told The Nation. “This is part of coordinated efforts by conservatives across the country to use the economic crisis to shred critical worker protections.”
Paralleling an anti-regulatory movement in federal and state politics, lawmakers who have challenged child labor restrictions say they’re an unneeded barrier to exposing youngsters to old-fashioned discipline and rigor of the workplace.
In a public lecture posted to YouTube, Senator Mike Lee of Utah challenged federal child labor laws on constitutional grounds. Citing a 1918 Supreme Court decision that struck down anti–child labor legislation as an unjust encroachment on state authority, Lee contended, “as reprehensible as child labor is, and as much as it ought to be abandoned—that’s something that has to be done by state legislators.”
Lee’s legal rationale traces back to the debate surrounding the Keating-Owen Act of 1916, which would have curbed the employment of children had the Supreme Court not blocked it. Full-scale anti–child labor policies weren’t firmly implemented until the Great Depression. Backed by New Deal advocates and an emboldened labor movement, the federal government finally pushed through age and work-hour regulations for child workers in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
The slippery slope on child labor has intersected with the presidential campaign trail, too. Speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government last November, Newt Gingrich promoted quasi-vocational programs for poor school children, to offer “work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office.” Besides, he said, “middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness.”
This bootstraps ideology is neither novel nor limited to the Republican Party. The meme of the shiftless, dependency-prone poor shaped the fictive image of Reagan’s “welfare queen.” It also formed a pillar of the Clinton administration’s welfare reforms, which downplayed structural social barriers and aimed to “train” poor people of color through “welfare-to-work” labor programs.
Gingrich’s philosophy on child labor complements Dickensian statements about child welfare during his tenure as House Speaker; he suggested placing children of dysfunctional parents in orphanages, removing them from their parents’ negative influences.
Many children who “pursue happiness” through labor have dismal options. Common gigs for youth—like construction, hospitality and restaurant jobs and farming—often come with major hazards. According to a federal analysis of emergency department data, compared to workers 25 years and older, workers aged 15 to 17 suffer far higher rates of work-related injury.
Farm work is uniquely dangerous, leaving roughly 3,400 children and adolescents injured in 2009. Far from the bucolic ideal of the yeoman family, much of this sector today involves impoverished Latino migrant families. Farms can currently hire kids as young as 12 with parental consent. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, threats facing child workers include pesticides, heat stress, accidents, employer abuse and massive school drop-out rates.
The right’s fight against child labor laws coincides with a small push in the other direction from the Obama administration. Following years of pressure from advocates, the Labor Department has proposed new farm labor rules that would bar children under 16 from handling certain hazardous equipment and engaging in “agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins.” Activists praised the initiative, but said it was only a small step toward addressing child exploitation in agriculture.
Separately, advocacy groups have pushed for the more comprehensive Children’s Act for Responsible Employment, which would extend existing child labor regulations for other industries to agriculture. But the bill has languished in Congress.
Even the Labor Department’s modest proposed reforms to farm work rules provoked backlash. A group of senators sent a letter of protest to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in December, warning that tighter regulation could have “significant adverse economic impacts on rural employers” that rely on teen labor “to meet seasonal employment needs.”
The right-wing canard of “tradition” versus worker protection might not portend a full-scale Oliver Twist redux. Nonetheless, recent debates around child labor have dusted off old arguments against government “overreach” dating back to a much crueler economic era.
“It seems that conservative politicians are trying to take us back to the nineteenth century—a time when children went to work instead of school and toiled under dangerous conditions for little pay,” said Justin Feldman of Public Citizen. Though some regulated work experience may be considered educational, he added, patterns of abuse and injury show that “children need more protection from these hazards, not less.”
The phrase “child labor” suggests grainy photographs of waifish mill girls, or images of kids trapped in faraway sweatshops. But when US politicians grumble at basic protections for the youngest, most vulnerable workers, they reveal that the Industrial Revolution’s legacy of unbridled capitalism still haunts the country’s political arena.
Tags: abortion, africa aids, birth control, gag rule, HIV/AIDS, legal abortion, michelle chen, pro choice, reproductive health, right wing, roger hollander, women's choice, women's health, women's rights
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While Congress was playing fiscal roulette last month, House Republicans quietly advanced their attack on reproductive choice, too. Conservative legislators are working to reinstate the so-called Global Gag Rule, which would block international aid to organizations that provide abortion-related information and services in other countries. Exporting their domestic anti-abortion agenda to the Global South, conservatives seek to hold international family planning programs hostage to America’s culture wars.
On top of the gag-rule revival, House Republicans are also attacking family-planning funding overall, by trying to kill U.S. support for the United Nations Population Fund. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
The proposed policy, part of a larger bill funding the State Department, is based on a Bush administration executive order that President Obama repealed. Under the previous gag rule, overseas organizations receiving U.S. family-planning funds were not allowed to provide abortion-related care or counseling, to help women avoid unsafe abortions, or to advocate on abortion issues. In addition to damaging women’s health, the policy undermined political dialogue on providing comprehensive family planning in aid-dependent countries. The bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month.
But the new gag rule would go beyond previous executive orders (Bush’s policy was a reinstatement of Ronald Reagan’s “Mexico City Policy,” which Bill Clinton rescinded) by codifying an expanded version of the restrictions in federal law.
Ellen Marshall, a foreign policy consultant with the International Women’s Health Coalition, said the political forces driving the gag rule were
completely irresponsible in [their attempt] to block contraceptive and other sexual and reproductive health services for women, including services that prevent the need for abortion—all in the name of ending abortion. Doubly troubling is their willingness to stomp all over people’s right to speech and to participate in public and political dialogue in their own countries, as a condition for receiving U.S. assistance.
On top of the gag-rule revival, House Republicans are also attacking family-planning funding overall, by trying to kill U.S. support for the United Nations Population Fund.
The federal budget doesn’t account for the grim mathematics of this global reproductive health crisis. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that every $10 million that is cut from international family planning and reproductive health aid means “610,000 fewer women and couples would receive contraceptive services and supplies, 190,000 more unintended pregnancies, and 82,000 more unplanned births.” Ultimately, reports the Huffington Post, the “pro-life” family-planning cuts proposed by the GOP would lead to roughly 7,700 maternal deaths and leave about 35,000 more children without mothers.
If reinstated, the gag rule would affect groups serving in a huge swath of the Global South, because the majority of countries that receive USAID funds allow some form of legal abortion, according to a 2009 report by the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The Bush gag rule had a massive ripple effect, according to Population Action International:
shipments of U.S.-donated condoms and contraceptives completely ceased to 16 developing countries, primarily in Africa. Leading family planning agencies in another 16 countries—mostly in Africa—have lost access to much-needed U.S. condoms and contraceptives as a result of their refusal to accept the gag rule restrictions.
In Kenya, the rule led to major funding losses for two large service providers, FPAK and MSI Kenya, which had to severely curtail their community health outreach and clinic programs:
Funding shortages have also led to a lack of regular contraceptive technology updates for community health workers. As a result, community health workers are uninformed of the types of family planning methods available to HIV-positive people. They avoid discussing condoms or reproductive health issues because their training has been restricted. Yet an emerging public health challenge involves those HIV-positive Kenyan women who are sexually active and desire pregnancy, but do not have the knowledge or tools to prevent transmission of the virus to their child.
The struggle against HIV/AIDS in Africa has been further hindered by the so-called “anti-prostitution pledge” embedded in the U.S.’s global HIV/AIDS funding program. The policy forces groups to actively disavow activities that may be considered supportive of sex workers. A federal appeals court recently ruled that the pledge amounted to overreach when applied to certain U.S.-based groups working overseas, but the restriction remains in force for foreign groups.
The groups at risk of getting gagged are a critical, often singular resource for women who are exposed to all forms of violence and exploitation. And this is another sad parallel between domestic and foreign policy: barriers to abortion and family planning services in the U.S. most acutely impact the health of poor women and women of color.
The gag rule isn’t about preempting direct taxpayer support for abortions; that’s already ensured under the policy known as the Helms Amendment.* Rather, the gag rule punishes overseas organizations that are focused broadly on women’s health needs. As the Center for American Progress puts it, “Under the global gag rule, these organizations face a choice: either participate in the American right’s global campaign to restrict women’s rights and access to reproductive health care or lose critical U.S. funding.”
The latest attempt to resurrect the gag rule is particularly threatening because many of the countries at risk now face unprecedented health challenges, from gender-based violence in war to refugee crises to a global epidemic of preventable maternal deaths.
International aid often serves as a cudgel for exporting conservatives’ domestic anti-choice campaigns (read: the wholesale defunding of Planned Parenthood). Marshall told Colorlines that it’s easier to use foreign policy as a “test market” for measures that would face more resistance in the U.S., she said, “because quite honestly … fewer Americans are likely to get up in arms on restrictions on their foreign assistance dollars, because they don’t see really a direct impact of that.”
In many ways the gag rule reflects endemic problems in the foreign aid funding model, which hinges more on the election cycle than real human needs. Women’s health advocates have long called for a comprehensive, community-oriented approach to aid that integrates reproductive and sexual health together with family planning—and above all, upholds human rights, not just political agendas.
While a wholesale restructuring of foreign aid remains a distant goal, New York Rep. Nita Lowey wants to at least revamp funding for family planning with the proposed Global Democracy Promotion Act. The measure would prevent lawmakers from forcing overseas groups “to sacrifice their right to free speech and their obligation to provide truthful, comprehensive information to patients in order to participate in U.S. supported programs.”
But in a political arena dominated by deception and stonewalling, promoting integrity in international aid inevitably ranks low on the agenda. In the right’s ongoing quest to gag the movement for reproductive health, the aid that was intended to improve women’s lives has instead been used to smother them.
Women Rise to the Challenge in the Arab Spring May 27, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Israel, Gaza & Middle East, Women.
Tags: abi abdullah saleh, arab spring, arab women, egypt, egyptian women, feminism, islam, islamic law, libya, michelle chen, revolution, roger hollander, selah, tahrir square, tunisia, women's rights, yemen
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The scene would have had most Americans readjusting their television sets—or their preconceived notions about Arab society. In the April sun, throngs of protesters washed over the streets of the southern Yemeni city Taiz, most clad head-to-toe in black, their eyes steely with determination. The crowd was festooned with bright baseball caps and signs bearing English slogans such as, “We want a new Yemen without Saleh” in seeming defiance both of the autocratic regime and of society’s expectations.
It was only a few months ago that demonstrations exploded across the Maghreb and the Middle East. If you trace the sweep of the revolutionary contagion, a trendline emerges: The seedbed of the revolt, Tunisia, may have lacked democracy but was fairly advanced in providing equal rights for women. The next domino to fall, Egypt, could not have toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak without the support of women activists who took the helm at Tahrir Square. And now Yemen, a relatively conservative and impoverished country, has seen women gathering in a groundswell of resistance–paralleled by increasingly tense uprisings in Syria and Libya.
The BBC recently reported on one of the figureheads of the Yemeni uprising, Tawakul Karman, a former stay-at-home mother whose political passion was galvanized when her husband became a political prisoner:
In the last three months, Mrs Karman has been imprisoned, beaten and humiliated in the state media. As a result, she is a household name in Yemen and an inspiration to many women here. ‘This goes beyond the wildest dream I have ever dreamt,’ she says. ‘I am so proud of our women.’
With Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime on the brink of implosion, women’s role in the revolution is coming to the forefront, as Karman and other women become fixtures at the demonstrations in Sana’a‘s Change Square. The outrage flared after Saleh denounced women protesters as violating Islamic law. The attempt at intimidation backfired: One activist told the BBC, “Ali Abdullah Saleh turned me into a stronger woman.”
The outpouring of social and economic frustration has subverted gender hierarchies and stereotypes both in the political establishment and in the opposition. While Yemen’s Western-backed authoritarian regime faces rising public wrath, the opposition Islamist party Islah may actually offer women a greater voice.
According to news reports, Islah activists may not see women’s rights on their main agenda, but they’re keen on engaging women, at least for pragmatic reasons. As anti-government protesters start to envision life after Saleh, each woman will ultimately count as one vote in future elections.
Yet the rising profile of female revolutionaries remains shadowed by the gendered burdens of authoritarian oppression. Terrorized women and children form the bulk of the refugee tide spilling out of Syria over the border to Lebanon in order to escape the crackdown on the roiling uprisings. In Libya, civil war has reportedly spawned an epidemic of rape as a military weapon.
Back in Egypt, the solidarity of the January 25 uprising, which for a moment united people across lines of class, religion and gender, now appears to be ebbing into sectarian and socioeconomic strife. The protests continue, sometimes spilling blood on the streets. Egypt’s struggle for gender justice has followed a similarly precarious trajectory. Although many women activists became icons of the youth-driven revolutionary movement, military rule now threatens to rollback their gains. According to political analyst Valerie M. Hudson, recent stirrings in parliament could effectively squelch women’s participation in government:
Reacting to these reports, women’s organizations in Egypt have called for the quota to either be maintained, or for a 3-3-4 party list system to be instituted. In that system, a woman candidate must figure among the first three listed candidates, among the second three listed candidates and then among the next four listed candidates. As Noha El Khoury of the [Egyptian Center for Women's Rights] has written with great concern, the status of Egyptian women ‘is not getting better’ after the revolution.
The complex symbolism of women in protest movements is nothing new, not even in the Middle East, as seen in the martyrdom of “Neda” in the Iranian uprising of 2009. But today, some activists in the region fear women risk being co-opted by reactionary agendas. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights sharply criticized a recent clash between Muslims and Christians at a march that had been billed as a rally against sectarian strife. In a statement [PDF] issued earlier this month, the group said, “The incidents that happened between Muslims and Christians are a clear attempt to abort the 25th of January revolution through the use of women to fuel strife.”
After the overthrow of Mubarak, as Ms. reported earlier, women demanded social and cultural revolution in addition to political change. The reaction was telling: Many felt anxious or threatened by feminist rebellion in the still-fragile democracy. Cairo-based activist Jumanah Younis recalled attacks on women at a Tahrir Square demonstration in March:
As I struggled to stay upright, a hand grabbed my behind and others pulled at my clothes. When, a few minutes later, I found the other women I was with, one told me that a man had put his hand down her top, while another woman had been pushed to the ground and held down by a man on top of her. The police continued to direct traffic around the square as the incident was taking place.
Such outrageous displays of contempt for women cannot be allowed to persist in the new Egypt. Time and time again so-called “women’s issues” have been relegated to the bottom of the agenda: We must end corruption first, we must have political freedom first, etc., etc. On Tuesday, Egyptian women said: ‘Now is the time.’ There is no freedom for men without freedom and equality for women.
The Arab Spring has raised a beacon of democratic change and shattered walls of fear in a region long dominated by tyrants or foreign powers. But the scope of the struggle also complicates the dialogue about gender, social justice and democracy in the communities that are being rapidly reborn. In a climate of militant protest, however principled, warped notions of nationalism and masculine valor tend to surface, and can easily dissolve into violence and chauvinism.
The history is still being written. Back in Tunisia, subtle gender dimensions continue to unfold from the scene that spawned the Arab Spring, the self-immolation of a young street vendor. The common narrative suggested Mohamed Bouazizi had been slapped and humiliated by a female police officer, Fadia Hamdi. But this framing of the events—the indignity suffered by the emasculated jobless youth versus the arrogant aggression of the police woman—has come undone. The legal case was dropped and Hamdi’s name effectively cleared in the media. In the end, the woman held responsible for sparking nationwide revolt was greeted with cheers outside the courtroom hailing her freedom, according to press reports. No longer pressing the case, Bouazizi’s mother reportedly declared, “For me, it is enough that Mohamed’s martyrdom has resulted in freedom and the fall of tyrants.” So it goes with the mercurial politics of revolution.
Women’s voices have carried far and wide on the Arab Spring’s winds of revolution, fading in and out as in the tumult still churning throughout the region. But no matter where women march from here, there’s a recognition that no matter what, there’s no going back to the way things were.