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The Women's Voice Is Revolutionary: Women and the Arab Spring

     Through my work and travels I have seen hundreds of revolutionaries. People who offered their energy, efforts and sometimes even their lives to defend honourable causes like the liberation of their country from military occupation, the protection of the vulnerable in areas prone to natural disasters and the suppression of barriers to the free movement of people around the world. Last week, I met another seven of them, a group of young female activists from Cairo that has not only changed my view of the Egyptian revolution but also of my very concept of a revolutionary. Many of the revolutionaries that I had thus far met were more con than pro, with an unbridled passion that would often make them intransigent and ostracize them. They would refuse institutionalization because, as many before them, they were afraid that the organization itself would become the goal overshadowing their cause. These women were completely different. They were as passionate about their causes, but cooperative, gentle and strategic in their approach. A different kind of revolutionary.

As the group's interpreter during their week-long professional exchange in Frankfurt am Main this November, I had the privilege of literally absorbing every word that each of them said not just about their institutions and work, but also their motivations and dreams. What impressed me the most about all of them was their stunning creativity. While supporting an existing organization is a fantastic initiative to take, founding a movement requires a completely different set of skills and vision. Sara Aziz founded an organization (Safe) to inform children about how to protect themselves from sexual abuse. At the age of 26, she has designed training courses and information material to protect thousands of children. And not just in Egypt; her initiative has expanded to several other countries. Her brilliant strategies have even made it possible for her to obtain authorization from the Egyptian Ministry of Education to spread this knowledge in schools; an unprecedented move in the country.

Protecting women from such abuse is Nihal Saad Zaghloul's aim. The movement that she co-founded has taken up a massive campaign to educate Cairo inhabitants about women's rights in order to prevent sexual harassment on the city's street. The success she has had in recruiting volunteers and even police support is impressive. Her movement, Imprint, has provided protection for thousands on peak days for sexual harassment in the city. Nelly Ali has been reporting on the situation of street children in Cairo, especially young mothers. She put her life on hold to spend several years working in a Cairo children's shelter and has raised awareness all over the world about this hitherto under-analysed social issue. Her blog is read by over 71,000 people in 157 countries after just 18 months online. The youngest participant of the group, Heba Hesham, has founded the very first female student movement in the country. She showed great creativity from the very beginning; using discourse analysis of campus responses to the question "who is she?" to establish whether there was a need for raising awareness about women's issues on campus. She endeavours to counteract the social influences that caused the most derogatory answers to that question. Nada Rafik left her career in finance to do social work; she helps children and women in an underprivileged area of Cairo to improve their quality of life. I have never before seen anyone with such passion when drumming at a demonstration and chanting for the liberation of women from oppression. And I did not even see her in her home game.

While many educated women have been able to emancipate themselves in Egypt, it is only a privileged minority that has such opportunities. To expand the professional horizon of Egyptian women, Esraa Saleh works for an organization that fosters female economic empowerment. With her strong personality, her education and her determination to reach her future goals, she certainly leads as an example. Finally, the group included a true artist, Sally Zouhney. This young woman uses the arts to change society by instructing graffiti artists to paint with a gender focus. The murals that she showed me, with brilliant slogans and concepts that were not just explicit but also sharp and aesthetic cannot but be engraved on the viewers' minds.

In conclusion, their stories are so moving and their skills so unique that they have to be shared. They did not criticize, did not bicker about ideology or religion... Rather, they presented a united view for a better future of their country, a view that they are not only espousing but actively -- and successfully -- pursuing. I am grateful that I was given an opportunity to see this side of the Egyptian revolution, the Egyptian people, and women in general. Aspects that we are so rarely introduced to by mainstream media in the West but that make up such an essential part of reality.

Copyright (c) 2013 Zaha Kheir

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I am a political researcher, with a special focus on democratization in the Middle East. My secondary career is translation of the Arabic, English, Spanish and German languages. Together, they have made me a professional capable of integrating myself into diverse cultures and of producing analyses with a unque approach.

Posted on 2013-11-29, By: *

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