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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

OAU@50: Voice, vigil and the veil: Recalling North African women’s struggles

In the next two weeks, we shall pause  to reflect on what we have gained from fifty years of the Organisation of African Unity/Africa Union.

In my opinion, one of the most remarkable moments in the last five decades has to have been the 2011 uprisings in Egypt. These events are powerfully captured in the Mai Iskander directed 2012 movie “Words of Witness”. The movie centres around the true story of 22 year old Egyptian journalist Heba Afify. Defying cultural norms and family expectations, she takes to the streets to tweet, text, video and post facebook blogs and report on a changing Egypt. Going out to the streets each day and night to report on the events, her exasperated mother states “I know you are a journalist, but you’re still a girl!” It is a movie of her coming of age, political awakening and the disillusionment that follows a nation struggling to achieve the illusive freedom to shape its own destiny and democracy.The movie has many lessons for a generation of young men and women who dare to challenge dictators and are inspired to lead their countries towards democratic, economically inclusive and dignified societies across Africa.

The late liberation poet Gil Scott Heron once famously announced in 1970, that the revolution will not be televised. In 2013, we not only have the television, radio and print newspapers; we have the internet in our hands. During the Egyptian uprising, young men and women combined street vigils in Tahrir Square with twitter, facebook and cell phones to speak truth to power. Deeper analysis of the use of social media suggests that google did not cause the uprising as some may have intimated. However, 12,000 twitterers and 12 million on the internet made a difference. In Tahrir square, we saw the rise of a new political agent, a new political humming bird, the citizen journalist. That is who Heba and thousands of other women represented in and around the square.

While a stand against a corrupt dictatorship, the uprising was also a challenge to patriarchy, the system that vests power in men to the exclusion of women. In Egypt, this has taken the form historically in keeping the sexes apart, the wearing of the veil and the economic and social dependence on fathers and brothers by girls and women. Yet, to see Egyptian women through this lens would be to ignore the very many leaders that have existed. As far back as 31 BC, Cleopatra ruled all of Egypt. Other famous leaders including Nefertiti and a range of merchants and priestesses held power and influence over many aspects of Egyptian society. Ahead of many other African countries, the 1950s saw the enactment of laws that outlawed discrimination, asserted the right to vote and maternity leave among other rights.

Since the 2011 uprisings started, Egyptian women have voiced their dream to be free from sexism, harassment, rape and assault. Indeed, in the first elections, a woman presidential aspirant Bothaina Kamel articulated a number of freedoms that she and millions of other women wanted to see in the new Ethiopia. Key among them is freedom from “virginity tests”. These tests were being performed on girls and women female revolutionaries. In December 2011, Samira Ibrahim successfully filed a court case against practice after being subjected to one in March 2011. Rape continues to be a feature of Egyptian society. Findings from a study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights found that more than 80% of women had suffered rape.A key focus after the deposing of the Mubarak regime was to ensure that the new constitution incorporate international and African union standards around equality and the criminalisation of trafficking and child marriages.

There are many lessons from countries striving to transform tensions and even conflicts around identities into inclusive, safe and democratic societies. Firstly, the culture of impunity, inequality and exclusion is a fertile ground for extremism. Discrimination against any community erodes democracy for all.

Secondly, leadership requires vision, integrity and discipline in equal measure and at all levels of society. Thirdly, as we approach the 50th anniversary celebrations, nostalgia or a preoccupation with the past will not produce new leadership or energies. Imagination and a vision for the future rather than nostalgia was the driving force of Dedan Kimathi, Mekatili wa Menza, Angela Davis, Amilcar Cabral, Bibi Titi, Chris Hani, Micere Githae-Mugo, Nehanda, Tajudeen Abdul-Rahim, Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu among others.

Fourthly, we should nurture a sense of constructive criticism, even of ourselves. Criticism is the beginning for an alternative narrative and a dialogue of what is now possible. Lastly, mobilisation is not organisation. It is only the beginning of a long process of awakening people’s self-agency. Transformatory change requires building a common purpose, injecting some creativity and a willingness to sacrifice for a vision. We need to go beyond litigation and demonstrations to creating standing mechanisms for men and women to monitor, propose actions and hold public offices accountable for delivering on what matters to us.

As we chart the next 50 years of the African Union, we pause to honour our ancestors for the sacrifices they made for the Africa we now have. We honour them by taking action like Heba Afify and other Egyptian women to eliminate the culture of impunity, inequality and exclusion that continues to hold back millions of Africans.

Happy 50th anniversary African Union!



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