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Women on Front Line of Arab Spring Protests

Mariama Diallo

For more than 100 years, women around the world have been observing International Women's Day. The United Nations made it official in 1977 with March 8 as the date to reflect on women’s rights worldwide.  One particular group of women has played a crucial role in the recent revolutions in their respective countries.

Many women have been among the protesters on the front lines of anti-government movements in the Middle East and North Africa. They helped to topple longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  

“They played a catalytic role in terms of coming out and organizing protests, smuggling arms, getting information to international media outlets, nursing the sick and the people who have been injured as a result of the protests,” said Karen Sherman, the executive director for global programs at Women for Women International.

An Egyptian woman, Sara Galal, witnessed the protests in her country first hand. She is taking part in the Women's Initiative Fellowship Program at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.

“It was wonderful seeing all these women in the street, walking, protesting and singing and leading the protests. It was amazing,” Galal said.

Samar Elhussieny  is also taking part in the same fellowship program. She says she remains frustrated, despite the changes in Egypt.

"Before the revolution, you were fighting the Mubarak regime and you are thinking if you can just get rid of Mubarak, everything will be OK.  But after the revolution, I can say that I'm disappointed,” Elhussieny said.

Egyptian political analyst Rania el Malki offers similar sentiments. "I think it's much easier to bring down a dictator than to change the patriarchal nature of the society, which is going to take time, a lot of time," el Malki said.

Women in Yemen also took part in the uprising there. Ashwak el Rabbie says a lot more work needs to be done.

"Yemeni women have to fight for their rights. They are not going to give them their rights easily," el Rabbie said.

But Zaafaran Ali, a writer and supporter of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, says as much as many people disliked Mr. Saleh, he advocated for women's rights.

"He created a culture that allowed a woman to travel by herself, ensure her right for education, marriage and having children; her right to work and practice her daily life," Ali said.

Karen Sherman with Women for Women International stresses that economic gains are important in order for women to achieve equal rights.

“It makes a big difference in terms of how a woman is perceived within the family and within the society so that economical participation is equally perhaps if not more vital than political participation," she said.

Whether it's political or economic, many women who have taken part in the Arab Spring say they are ready to face any challenge in order to be part of their countries' transition to democracy.

Elizabeth Arrott in Cairo and Lisa Ferdinando in Washington also contributed to this report

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