Schwartz Fellow and moderator Katherine Zoepf shares her take on the conversation:
Tuesday night’s panel, the third event in our “Broadly Speaking” women’s issues series to be held in NAF’s new NYC events space, was originally planned as a discussion of Islamic feminism. But the Arab Spring and its effects on women’s empowerment, which our three panelists have all been covering intensively, remained the focus for most of the evening.
There was an audible gasp throughout the room as, at the outset, Mona Eltahawy described the brutal beating and sexual assault that she suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces in November. Mona raised her arms -- her left arm and her right hand were broken in the attack, in revenge for her writing, and Mona has been heroically typing with one finger ever since -- for the audience to see as she insisted, “We must not be afraid to speak of these things!”
Isobel Coleman described how dictatorships are often able to push through laws that are good for women and how, paradoxically, democratization may threaten these changes. She and Mona discussed their specific fears that Egypt’s progressive family laws, derided as “Suzanne’s Laws” because they are widely associated with Egypt’s former first lady, are now under threat.
Ebtihal Mubarak, our Saudi panelist, spoke at length about the ways in which the popular uprisings in other Arab countries have been inspiring Saudi activists -- especially women. Women have led a campaign for the release of Saudi Arabia’s estimated 30,000 political prisoners, with scores of women demonstrating for their imprisoned male relatives in front of the interior ministry, and thousands have joined Manal al-Sharif’s Women2Drive campaign.
For the first time, Ebtihal said, activism is being embraced by ordinary Saudis, not just a tiny Western-educated elite.
“Why did Manal become such a symbol, this ordinary woman?” Ebtihal asked, referring to Women2Drive’s leader. “I was very surprised to hear her name. She’s middle class, educated in public schools, and a single mother. But if she was able to do it, people feel they can too. You see the class of activists expanding.”
Though Saudi Arabia has seen fewer public protests than other Arab countries, Ebtihal said a favorite game among activists has been deciding what their country should be renamed -- after the revolution.
Listen to audio of this event:
Broadly Speaking, presented by the New America Foundation and Slate.com’s Double X, featured the following speakers:
Egyptian-American freelance journalist and columnist
Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations
Author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East
Brooklyn-based Saudi journalist and blogger
Current intern at The Nation magazine
Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation