While American women argue about why not enough of them head Fortune 500 companies, women around the world, especially in developing countries, have far more basic concerns. Speaking out against sexual abuse and humiliation, gaining access to education, defending human rights, they look to the U.S. for help and inspiration, and last week the State Department prepared to recognize 10 women who have shown extraordinary courage in advancing democratic values.
Then one of the women was struck from the list. The day before the ceremony with Secretary of State John Kerry and first lady Michelle Obama, Samira Ibrahim of Egypt had her award withdrawn after anti-American and anti-Semitic postings were uncovered on her Twitter account and reported in various outlets. She initially denied the tweets were hers, said someone must have hacked her site, but after a series of conversations in which her award was at first deferred, then canceled, Ibrahim was sent packing by a somewhat chagrined and embarrassed State Department.
The tweets, reprinted in a column by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, are stomach-churning in the visceral hatred they express toward America, Jews, and Israel. The State Department does not have the luxury of compartmentalizing Ibrahim’s very different views when it comes to advocating for women’s rights. She was one of the women highlighted in the media during the Arab Spring. Time named her one of the “100 most influential people in the world” last year, and she was celebrated for her courage at The Daily Beast/Newsweek’s Women in the World Summit in 2012.
Her title on the business card she handed me reads, “Coordinator Know Your Rights Movement.” She had come to Washington to be honored for her courage in speaking out as one of seven women forced by the Egyptian military to undergo “virginity tests” after they were detained in March 2011 during a protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. At great danger to herself, Ibrahim brought charges against the government and continues to protest against the extreme religious practices of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Over lunch she described gangs associated with the government that cut the hair off young women who aren’t veiled, and worse, medical gangs that perform circumcision on girls. “The American administration knows what’s going on and chooses to let it be,” she said, speaking through a translator. She added the dire prediction, “Ten years from now, Egypt will be exactly like Iran.” She was pleading for more U.S. intervention, saying that if America did not deter the Muslim Brotherhood now in their first year of ruling, then it would be impossible. There was nothing anti-American in what she was saying; if anything, she was looking to the U.S. to be democracy’s savior in Egypt.
It’s understandable that the State Department would have selected her for its “Women of Courage” award. She seemed to have been publicly vetted a long time ago. This is the sixth year of this international award, which was launched in 2007 by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to coincide with International Women’s Day. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that after a six-year track record of stunning selections that one of the women chosen would come undone because of social media. Ibrahim vaulted to the forefront of a movement generated in large part by social media, which thrives on emotion and spontaneity.
According to administration sources, she had apparently tried to delete some posts over time, but poisonous tweets live on in this world of mirrors and in the end, she is a product of the culture that created her. Back in Egypt, she is being lionized for standing up to the State Department. I suspect that returning home with an award from the infidels would have been a lot more problematic.
What I will remember about her, though, is the elegant silver and black head covering she wore, her earnest expression and youthful face, and her disappointment in the U.S. for not working harder to achieve democracy in Egypt. Now the disappointment is mutual, but it shouldn’t end these important people-to-people exchanges. There is a stubborn reality steeped in ancient hatreds in the Middle East that the best intentions can’t sweep aside, at least not easily, and social media adds to the complexities.