African Women and the ‘Arab Spring’

Meeting in Morocco, 600 female politicians from the continent wonder if the winds of change sweeping North Africa will turn south -- to black Africa.

Sy Kadiatou Sow of Mali (Habibou Bangré)
Sy Kadiatou Sow of Mali (Habibou Bangré)

Some 600 African women gathered under a white tent in Tangier, Morocco, earlier this month. They traveled from all over the continent to celebrate the 100th Annual International Women’s Day, but also to talk about governance and government.

The meeting was the first forum of locally elected African women organized by the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, it took place as the winds of change were sweeping North Africa. Both Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had been toppled, and unrest raged in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia — and host nation Morocco.

Monia Ammar Feki, a Tunisian magistrate, served several years under Ben Ali. Now a judge in charge of human rights in the Justice and Human Rights ministry of her country, Feki explained to an attentive audience why Ben Ali’s Jan. 14 departure was seen as a liberation. “Huge progress was made in terms of women’s and detainees’ rights or education, but this positive dynamic was stopped because there was no real democracy,” she said. “There were a lot of problems concerning freedom of expression, opinion and party membership. There was no right to have a different stance from that of the government.”

How was she able to work under the 23-year regime? “When people asked me, I would answer that it was difficult, that it was a daily battle! I have been pushed aside several times because I was speaking against human rights violations.”

Opinions about Muammar Qaddafi varied considerably. The African Union has refused to support the no-fly zone imposed by the U.N. Security Council. Woraye Sarr, mayor of Medina Gounas, a suburb of Dakar, said she did not know “what lies behind the [present] situation in Libya.”

The member of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade’s party in attendance declared, “Qaddafi does not deserve what is happening to him because he has set Libya upright.” She said Qaddafi had done a lot for his people: “Before him, there was no electricity, no work … Now, even the Libyans who cannot find work get a monthly aid, thanks to oil resources.

Sy Kadiatou Sow, the director of a community development project in Bamako, Mali, disagreed. She said that she thought Qaddafi should leave. “Even if he stays, he reached the point of no return, and history showed that the harsher the repression, the harder people think they have nothing left to lose. This is what happened in Mali during the 1991 revolution that forced Moussa Traoré out of power.”

But Sow, a former minister of foreign affairs, conceded that her president, Amadou Toumani Touré, is in a difficult situation. To turn against Qaddafi, he would have to publicly condemn the man who partly financed new government buildings in Mali — named for the Libyan leader. “Mali is not the only country to keep quiet, and we know why … But if they cannot condemn his attitude, at least they should reason with Qaddafi and save people’s lives,” she said. “Libyans are dying, along with Malian migrants mistaken for mercenaries.”