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The Uprising of Women in the Arab World: Sally Zohney on Sexual Harassment in the Middle East

The Uprising of Women in the Arab World: Sally Zohney on Sexual Harassment in the Middle East
written by
Ben Noble

Despite the continuing efforts of individuals and organisations, the fact remains that to be born a woman in the Middle East presents a set of challenges, problems, and often dangers. We got in touch with Sally Zohney, a founding member of The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, and asked her to tell us a little about the organisation and what it works to acheive.

The Uprising was founded in October 2011 as a spontaneous reaction to the fear that the aims of the Arab Spring – in regards to women’s rights – would be aborted. Yalda Younes created the web-page in Lebanon, and quickly contacted Diala Haidar (also Lebanese), Sally Zohney in Egypt, and Farah Barqawi in Palestine to truly make it a cross-border movement. Now it has expanded to include admins from all over the Arab world, and has over 115,000 supporters on Facebook.

The movement defines itself as “an Intifada which is a free secular space for constructive dialogue and fearless listening about women’s rights in the Arab world.” Sally emphasises that it is secular and doesn’t aim to infringe on any beliefs or religion; “all members have the freedom and right to their beliefs, so long as they don’t try to impose them on others”.

As well as being a grass-roots movement, it works towards the civil and legal advancement of women, and so demands the full application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for women as well as men. This declaration, says Sally, comes before and goes beyond any state, culture, tradition or mentality. Recently, the movement has sent their manifesto to the UN Human Rights Office in order to try and secure International legal backing.

On top of legal action, the movement largely aims to empower women, to give them strength and a feeling of solidarity. Since its creation, the uprising has carried out three campaigns, using their online resources both as a way to access and speak to women who would otherwise be silent, and as a tool for organising on-the-ground action.

The first of these campaigns is a photo-campaign, which asks both men and women to send a photograph of themselves holding a placard beginning with the phrase “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because…” According to Sally, this has been an overwhelming success; not only can everyone see the very real results here, but for her it shows a significant psychological change in the women affected: “all over the Middle East, women are standing up and finding a voice; many have personally thanked the movement for giving them the courage to speak,” she explains.

Between late November and early December 2012, some seventy women sent their stories to the movement during its second campaign, ‘Tell Your Story’, which was a call for women to share their experiences of violence, assault or discrimination. It was intended as a vent for anger and a form of therapy, and again to nurture solidarity and unity among women.

But Sally also stressed that this campaign was about “opening everyone’s eyes; forcing them to see the unpleasant reality that nobody wants to face.” As much as it was about helping women, this campaign was also aimed at men, to educate them and change their attitudes; Sally is adamant that without reaching men, the problem cannot be solved. Again, this has been successful, but what these women are trying to do is a continuous uphill struggle. 

Most recently, the movement organised the ‘Campaign against Sexual Terrorism’. This campaign coordinated marches across the Middle East on February 12th 2013 in condemnation of sexual assault as a political tool, where it is used to disperse and discourage female protesters. Sally sounds proud, and rightly so, when she says that there was a huge turnout in thirty-five different countries; “this is as important as any legal gain, because it proves the amount of popular support for women. As a result of these protests, the world must recognise sexual terrorism as a reality and work to end it.”

When asked, Sally seems hopeful for the future; Egypt has another chance at writing a fair constitution, and hopefully movements like this will keep enough pressure on those in power to ensure that women are protected and represented. However, there are other problems for women, among them is a media that doesn’t see these problems as important, that prints victims’ names without permission, and that always points to the woman as the guilty party.

More worrying still is that when asked if women see the police as protectors, Sally seems surprised that I needed to ask; “no, of course not. Never”, she states. In light of this, we must consider ourselves lucky that Sally and her colleagues are working to change these problems faced by women every day. You can read their harrowing experiences here, or learn more about the cause through their Facebook page.