Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year of the (Woman) Protester

For 2011, Time Magazine selected "The Protester" as it's annual Person of the Year. Illustrated by graffiti artist turned somewhat rebellious but establishment approved graphic designer Shepard Fairey, the cover depicts a stylized, brown eyed person with a knit cap covering their head and hair, and a bandana covering their nose and mouth. Perhaps intentionally, it's hard to tell if it's a man or a woman. 

Of course, we have seen major and important protests occurring all over the world this year, beginning with the Arab Spring movements and spreading to the Occupy Wall Street actions. 

Stories coming from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere have included incredibly inspiring reports of women taking on leadership positions in Tahrir Square, demanding the right to drive in Riyadh, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in Yemen and Liberia. Women around the world are taking their places as leaders of these movements because they know that true democracy and freedom cannot be achieved without women's full and equal engagement and participation in public life. 

Unfortunately, the encouraging stories from springtime in Tahrir Square have more recently been supplanted by reports of extreme violence by the military regime against protesters demanding civilian rule, and especially against the women protesters. This violence crossed the red line, as many Egyptian activists put it, when images were broadcast of a woman, clothes torn off and blue bra revealed, being dragged and beaten by soldiers.

In addition to this violence, it's been well documented that since the revolution began, women protesters who had been detained by the military were subjected to sexual harassment while in custody, including bogus "virginity tests." Why are we seeing an increase in violence against women under the military regime that's replaced Mubarak? In an op-ed piece for Al-Jazeera, UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine notes that: 

"once the general public loses fear of state violence, the state must press even harder by specifically attacking the repository of honour and values - female citizens - as a way of attempting to break down the resistance of society as a whole."

Of course, women are not inherently more honourable than men; the perception that they are is an example of benevolent sexism. Unfortunately, the misguided elevation of women to pillars of honour and morals often make them the targets of violence during conflicts. Could the Egyptian military regime be targeting women because of the demoralizing effect they expect the degradation of women to have on the population as a whole? 

Egyptian women are standing up to this violence and oppression and demanding that the revolution that they've been working for side by side with men will deliver justice and equality for themselves as full members of Egyptian civil society. 

After being subjected to a virginity test while held in military custody for her role in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, 25 year old activist Samira Ibrahim brought a court case against the military to challenge their use of this harassment. On December 27, 2011, the court ruled that the virginity tests were illegal and must not continue. Upon learning of her victory, Ibrahim stated:

"Thank you to the people, thank you to Tahrir Square that taught me to challenge, thank you to the revolution that taught me perseverance."

Here at the Wall of Femmes, we are incredibly encouraged to learn of more and more women like Samira, and we stand in solidarity with women in Egypt and elsewhere as they take their places as leaders and participants of the worldwide movements towards full democracy and justice for all people. 

Photo of stencilled "Wanted" poster in Cairo, by photojournalist Themba Lewis, from a collection titled "Women to the Front." From the collection notes: "Images taken from video stills of soldiers responsible for blinding protesters with buckshot and rubber bullets have been stencilled across downtown Cairo." 

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