2011: The Year of the Woman

It was a great year, maybe one of the best ever, for direct action in-the-streets in-your-face pro-democracy movements, and they were largely pushed and pulled by women. Starting with Tunisia, food uprisings spread quickly to Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere across the continent. Sometimes, big men were pushed out.

Leymah Gbowee was one of three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, of Yemen, won the award for building peace the old-fashioned way: mass mobilization, individual courage, insistence on keeping one’s eyes on the prize, and identifying the prize itself as full and participatory, engaged and sustained democracy.

In Egypt, women of Tahrir Square moved a national conversation from one of reform to one of liberation and then they pushed Mubarak out. And what do we see when we look at the news from Tahrir Square today? Soldiers attack, beat and otherwise abuse women. And the women keep on keeping on. And keep on keeping on. It ain’t over til the women sing.

In Uganda, the Walk-to-Work movement, which didn’t get much attention from the mainstream media of the Global North (but maybe that’s a good thing, given the quality of coverage), was largely led and populated by women, like Ingrid Turinawe, who stopped work, proposed new forms of insurgence and intervention, and, not incidentally, called attention to the conditions in Uganda’s prisons, in this instance Luzira Prison.

Speaking of Uganda, over the weekend, the country’s government committed itself to reducing maternal mortality by 50%. Whether or not that commitment is real or in good faith, the simple statement is part of an important trend across the continent this year — the trend to recognize maternal mortality as a public health issue, a women’s issue, and a human rights issue. By issue is meant crisis. Too many women die in childbirth. Also the Kenyan government promised to reduce death in childbirths, while rural Kenyans organize new ways to ensure the safety of pregnant women and women in childbirth. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the state continues to make excuses, rather than support solutions.

In many ways, the global attention to maternal mortality as something governments can actually address, rather than bemoan, began two years ago with Amnesty’s report, “Demand Dignity: Case Studies on Maternal Mortality,” which focused on Sierra Leone, Peru, the United States, and Burkina Faso. Amnesty’s intervention was to see maternal mortality rates as human rights violations. It is a story that will continue into the next year.

Another major human rights story, across the continent, continues to be the rights, safety and well-being of LGBTIQ communities and persons. In South Africa, the trial of the killers of Khayelitsha lesbian activist Zoliswa Nkonyana draws to a close with sentencing hearings. Photographer, advocate, activist and organizer Zanele Muholi continues to open new pathways. In Uganda, gay rights activist David Kato was brutally murdered in January. In Kenya, gay rights activist David Kuria announced just this week that he will run for political office. That would make him the first openly gay candidate to do so — in the country’s history. And meanwhile the seemingly endless wave of homophobic legislation continues to sweep across the continent, but not without LGBTIQ activists and their supporters organizing in various venues. At the same time, gay and lesbian asylum seekers, like Ugandans Brenda Namigadde or Betty Tibikawa, struggle, often on their own, for refuge in distant and frequently inhospitable circumstances.

Finally, well almost finally, while women continue to be targeted by land grabs — in South Sudan and Uganda, in Kenya, and everywhere — African women workers also came to the fore this year in two particular ways. First, thanks to the International Labour Organization and local, regional and national domestic workers organizations, such as SADSAWU in South Africa, the concept of decent work for domestic workers began to take hold. This could begin to mean something positive in the lives of African transnational domestic workers, especially in the Middle East and in Europe, as well as at home. Second, the world began to recognize, formally, that small hold farmers [a] exist and [b] are a crucial component, and should be critical participants, in any discussion on food sovereignty, food security, health and climate change. And who are those farmers and farm workers? Women. Especially in Africa. They are not, as they’ve been described, “a low skill base.” Rather, women farmworkers, like those in the vineyards or the orchards of the Western Cape, or the sugar plantations of Kwa-Zulu Natal of South Africa, are not the problem. They are, or could be, part of a sustainable and sustaining food production chain.

Finally, it was a year in which we lost many. I will close with one, Wangari Maathai. Rest in peace. Hamba kahle.



Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

  1. The only picture that accompanies this post is one in which a woman is being savagely beaten by police. This, in an article that celebrates women’s participation in global rights’ movements. Why did the writer not comment on the picture? I personally find the picture (and the original video) most distressing! The poor girl in the picture; what is her name? Did she survive the attack? What these men are doing is profoundly degrading. Striping a woman in Egyptian (and anywhere else in this world) is degrading and humiliating given their cultural norms and attitude.Let’s stop for a moment and consider how other Egyptian women will feel about this picture. Really, Africa is a Country, I expected better from this site.
    Please put faces to some of these women that are celebrated in this post.

    1. Hi Kinna – I’m the resident Egyptian woman of AIAC, so I appreciate your concern here.

      Many of us who write for AIAC also comment on one another’s pieces and sometimes contribute to them, individually or collectively. As Dan mentioned, this can happen after it’s submitted by the original writer. Beyond that – for my part, I think that everyone outside of Egypt is so distracted by this woman’s bra that they forgot the reason her shirt is pulled up is because she is being kicked, beaten and dragged in the street by military police in the U.S.-funded Egyptian army. For my part, I’m not disturbed that this photo is being shared – I’m motivated by it. This kind of despicable violence needs to be seen, because part of Egypt’s struggle – and transnational women of colour’s struggles – is to expose imperialist and patriarchal violence to those who would rather blind themselves than see it. Thousands of Egyptian women and our male allies in Egypt marched in solidarity with this woman and all women, and that’s what I want to see. As Dan said, they keep on keeping on!

      Thanks for bringing up these points – let’s make sure to continue these conversations in the new year!

  2. @Kinna: Thanks for your response. Since I don’t see the picture or title, those are added after the piece is submitted, I can’t answer.

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