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The Arab spring through women's eyes

Manal Al Sharif tells us about life for Saudi women. In perfect English, she explains that Saudi women always wear black -- a cover worn over their regular clothes -- and that they remain minors until they die. Clearly upset, she explains that while decision-making bodies exclude women, a woman can't do anything without a male giving her permission.

Manal is known for her "It's my right to drive" or "#Women2Drive" campaign. On June 17, 2011, she was jailed for nine days for driving her car on the Saudi streets and then publishing her adventure on YouTube, creating a cyber uproar.

Manal swayed the pendulum towards a new order. Although driving for women is not banned legally in Saudi, she explains that the social norm does not accept it. Manal's quest broke the taboo; she became the people's voice; and now women in Saudi Arabia, and men too, are inspired to ask for their basic normal rights.

Optimistically, she says that indeed things have started to change in Saudi: more women travel for educational purposes now, and women will not only vote but also run for parliament seats. Women are becoming very active on social media, too. Last year alone, internet usage has increased 440 per cent in Saudi Arabia.

I heard Manal Al Sharif speak at the Change Your World Cairo 2012 Conference that took place on January 18. Manal was one of four exceptional women who took part in the first panel, titled "Revolutionary Women." They spoke about Arab women's plight and the changes occurring today. Together they represent a wholly different picture of today's Arab women.

Manal Al Sharif, from Saudi; Maria Al-Masani, from Yemen; Danya Bahir Hobba, from Libya; and Dalia Zeyada, from Egypt, presented a collaborative though unconscious joined effort to tackle and hopefully overcome Arab women's problems.

Maria Al-Masani, a Yemeni Canadian and an avid supporter of women around the world, in particular Yemen, her homeland, spoke of how life has changed for Yemeni women this last year. Women had felt they had no role, she said. They married at a very early age, and on average had 6.7 children. A poignant point she mentioned was that Yemenis assumed honour came from men and not women, but surprisingly it was a Yemeni woman who achieved the Nobel Prize.

With the shift in Yemen, women are beginning to play a more vital role: writing the constitution, asking for a quota of 34 members in parliament. Maria says that, prior to this shift, one single woman represented half the country in a parliament of 300, and yet her proposals and hard work always went to waste. But women are more hopeful now; they would like to repeat the era of the Queen of Sheba, when a woman ruled Yemen.

Dalia Zeyada, presented at the conference as one of the bravest bloggers in the world, started blogging in 2006 while fighting FGM -- female genital mutilation in Egypt. She then utilized social media to reach out to the public and voice her opinion. She has been active for the last six years promoting women's causes and supporting their efforts.

Dalia expressed her frustration at the few seats women gained to the Egyptian parliament -- 1 per cent, to be exact. But she says that women should not let anyone marginalize them; they should continue to adamantly ask for their rights and play a fundamental role in changing Egypt.

Dalia hopes that the revolution would change the current bias against women. Currently she has no hope that Buthaina Kamel, the first woman candidate for the Egyptian presidency, would gain significant votes. And she also expressed her annoyance at the hard-core Islamists who opted to present women candidates on promotional materials by their husbands' names instead of their own, while one substituted the picture of a flower for her own photo.

During the Libyan Revolution, Danya Bahsir Hobba, a young social activist, organized aid shipments for medical treatment and basic need in Libya. She now works with the Libyan youth to prepare for the transition and the future of Libya. Danya explains how Libyan women today are starting organizations to remove landmines, to teach children how to avoid landmines, and to help write the constitution. She is hopeful and reaffirms that Libyans have the motivation and eagerness to change though they still lack the organizational skills.

The general picture that these women portray is of hope and inspiration. They exude a different kind of mentality and optimism. They, and others like them, will play a pivotal role in overcoming the hurdles and barriers their countries are facing.

Capilano University communications professor Dr. Azza Sedky is spending the winter in Cairo. She often posts on her blog Egypt.

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