Zimbabwe to Egypt: Reflections from Tahrir Square
I met Rumbidzai Dube in March 2009 at the Tactical Tech InfoActivism camp in Bangalore India. At the time she worked as a researcher within the Women’s Programme at the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) an NGO in Zimbabwe. Since then Rumbidzai has completed her Masters in Law (LLM Human Rights and Democratization in Africa) at the University of Pretoria in Pretoria, South Africa. She has worked as an intern for the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and is presently serving a second internship in Egypt with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Over the next six months Rumbidzai will be writing about her work and her observations of life in Cairo and the people’s revolution.
As a Zimbabwean, an African, a black person and a woman, I cannot help but wish my life were different. No, I do not wish I had a different nationality-I love my country and all its beauty. I do not wish I were anything else but an African- I love the diversity that makes our continent what it is. I do not wish to be anything other than black- in fact I love being black because I do not believe in the stereotypes attached to being black. I am not barbaric! I do not eat human flesh! I do not live in a jungle! I am not ignorant though I do not claim to know everything there is to know in this world! I am not poor even though my bank account is empty! As one of my professors always said whereas some subscribe to the “I think therefore I am” theory by Rene Descartes as an African I believe “We are therefore I am.”Hence money does not make me rich, family does. When I have no family then I am poor.
When I wear something black there is definitely a difference between my skin complexion and that piece of clothing and I see the same difference when a ‘white’ person wears a white dress so maybe that label should be changed to dark skinned and light skinned instead. I love being a woman, ask any woman who is comfortable in her skin and she will tell you she does not wish to be recreated any differently. The reason I wish my life were different is that I hate the negativity attached to these identities that make my life more difficult than it should be. As a Zimbabwean I face repression from my own government. We cannot express ourselves freely, assemble freely, associate freely and choose who we want to govern us freely. As an African our nations are subjected to global politics characterized by the paradox of ‘equal’ nations yet some are more equal than others.’ This has caused untold suffering, particularly, to the African peoples through skewed negotiations on climate change. We constantly fight the war on the patenting of life saving drugs as against free and easy access to medicines. We are victims of conflicts fuelled by the availability of arms and weapons supplied by developed nations, the so called ‘War economies.” As a black person I am constantly made to feel I need to measure up to something. I still have not figured out what that something is since I certainly do not feel I am lacking in any respect. As for my struggle as woman, that cannot be told in this short space. I will leave it for another day and forum.
Where am I going with all this? Well here is my story…
Today I spent an hour in Tahrir Square, mingling with the thousands of Egyptians who were gathered there. Some were just sitting and discussing the recent developments in the country including the acquittal of some and conviction of other perpetrators of human rights violations during the |Jan|25| protests. Others were chanting slogans making demands from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces to implement the reforms that have been demanded since the Revolution began. Yes, there were factions in the Square. I came across one stand comprising youths that cried out “Allah Akbar” an Islamic phrase loosely translated to mean “God is the Most High.” I also found another one where they were playing Christian gospel music. It was clear there were different groupings in the Square but guess what, they were all in the Square.
They could have chosen to assemble in different squares but they did not. They came together, putting aside their differences for a greater purpose which was to put the message across clearly to the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces that this new earned right conceived during the Revolution shall neither be aborted nor miscarried. I also met a 14 year old blogger- yes fourteen. Before he has even reached the legal age of majority he understands that politics and political participation affects his life and impacts on his human rights. He does not shy away from it because ‘politics is a dirty game’-no. He takes charge and makes legitimate demands from the politicians in his country. I spent quality time with my close friends Alaa Abd El Fattah and Manal Bahey El Din Hassan who have been blogging for years at Manalaa.Net, exposing the Mubarak regime for the dictatorship that it was. Alaa got arrested several times by the police and today he stands with the rest of the Revolutionaries celebrating the fruits of his and many other people’s hard work. I walked within that Square for an hour and in all that time I did not get sexually harassed, neither did I hear any man whisper the obscene things that I am usually subjected to on the street. I was treated with respect and I did not feel conspicuous as a dark-skinned person amongst the crowds of light-skinned people.
What did all this mean to me?
As Zimbabweans, Africans, black people, women we can change our future. It takes patience, persistence and perseverance but it not impossible. Let history be remembered as the hair we shaved off our heads but let it not determine the kind of new hair we grow on our heads. Black people let us not remain victims of perceptions created ages ago and sustained for generations by people who suffer from a misplaced superiority complex. Africans let us not let the ghost of colonialism haunt us forever. Zimbabweans let us not pay for not having been born when the war of independence was fought. Women, let us stand strong against the skeleton that patriarchy has since become. We have been eating off the flesh of these things and I am sure pushing over the bones will not be such a hard task.
Back to Tahrir Square and Egypt…
Many people have argued that the culture of protests has become almost maniacal in the Arab world. Others argue that they have not seen how protesting has helped the Egyptian people and I quote my colleague, Paul speaking of the revolutionaries and the ousting of Mubarak (Paul and I studied for the Bachelor of Laws Honours Degree at the University of Zimbabwe)
“I do not see any good results coming from them. And do u believe they are the ones who removed him from power? I do not think so that is why they back in the streets bcoz their revolution was not home grown”
Well here is what I think. Protesting helped Egyptians get rid of a despotic government whose corruption had reached chronic levels. It ensured that their demands for justice against the perpetrators of human rights violations during the |Jan|25| protests were heard. Protesting ensured that property and money worth thousands of dollars belonging to the state which had been siphoned by the President and his wife was returned and handed over to the State. Through their concerted effort, Egyptians are setting a culture which if entrenched will see better respect, promotion and protection of human rights. How? Every time they gather in protest they are asserting their right to peaceful assembly and association as well as their right to freely express themselves.
Every time they make political demands pertaining to law reform, constitutional amendments, as well as the formation of political parties and their participation in elections they are asserting the right to participate in the governance of their country. It definitely is not as simplistic as it sounds but this is one step (or however many it may be) positively taken and it is gaining momentum each day. The police and military authorities still resist this culture but their resistance is becoming weaker each day. The weaker it becomes the more entrenched these freedoms will be in Egyptian society, spelling a progressive realization of their rights.
It is also many steps ahead of the Zimbabwean scenario where attempts to hold peaceful protests are crushed every time. In Zimbabwe, we have a security system that harasses, arrests and detains lawyers for demanding the sanctity of the profession that they chose. Our system finds a group of brave women (the Women of Zimbabwe Arise-WOZA) as criminals yet these women are constantly advocating social justice. The Egyptians have certainly gone one step ahead in this regard and the more they gather in Tahrir Square and hold their peaceful protests with no interference from the state apparatus, the higher their chances of sustaining this exercise of their right.
No sexual harassment for an hour?
Yes, I have discovered that Egypt is one of those places where being a woman is particularly difficult. The way you dress, walk, talk and laugh is so scrutinized that you cannot help but be very self conscious. Men whisper all sorts of obscenities to you as they pass by. Others stalk you. Some even try to grab you and run-in public! Yet today I was in that Square and for a whole hour none of that happened yet there were thousands of men there. Why-I asked myself? The obvious answer is because the Revolution birthed a new culture of respect for women with leading figures like Dr Laila Soueif emerging as lead figures at some defining moments of the Revolution . Harassment of women was viewed as unacceptable behavior and hence that perception holds true. Yes-it might only be wholly observed in Tahrir Square and at moments such as the one I experienced today but there is no doubt with time it shall cascade down to the everyday lives of Egyptians. It will take time but as always everything that is good comes through hard work, perseverance and persistence.
A 14 year old blogger? Wow!
My first thought was; I am 27 and I have done close to nothing to share the knowledge I have on human rights, democracy and democratization, good governance and women’s rights? ZIP!! And I am very ashamed to admit this. My second thought was I wish I knew a 14 year old blogger in Zimbabwe, let alone one who blogs on human rights and political participation. It is this kind of awareness that we need to build in our youth in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa. A youth that is not polarized on political grounds. A youth that resists state patronage. A youth that questions policies and practices that do not benefit the wider population. We do not want a youth that is used to terrorise communities, or to rape women and girls, or to force communities to support a party or a government they clearly loathe. It is time that our 14 year olds developed an interest in the things that shape their future and the future of their countries rather than concentrating on figuring out how to put a condom on!
There is more but for now I will end here.