From the stage of The Daily Beast's Women in the World conference in New York Thursday night, Egypt's Dalia Ziada delivered a grim reminder. "Democracy," she said, "will never happen without women's rights."
The message was badly needed for her compatriots in the Egyptian revolution, in which Ziada, a popular blogger, author and activist, had joined thousands of other women in taking to the streets. Breaking with the country's notoriety for sexual harassment and abuse, women stood side-by-side with men in Tahrir Square to help bring about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. Yet when Egyptian women marched this week to honor International Women's Day, many of those same men attacked them, both verbally and physically, telling them to go back home.
For Ziada, the incident lent credence to a point she has long worked to hammer home, which she reiterated Thursday night—that the Internet "can be a space for unveiling the minds of Muslim women." "No one cares if I'm a man or a woman," she told a packed crowd at the Millennium Hotel's Hudson Theatre, in a panel called "Firebrands: Pioneers in the New Age of Digital Dissent," moderated by Christiane Amanpour. "They only care for my mind."Iranian activist Sussan Tahmasebi, who shared the stage with Ziada tonight, has also taken advantage of the Web's democratic potential, using it to promote her One Million Signatures Campaign, which pushes for women's legal rights, which lag far behind educational rights—"Young Iranian women are more educated than their male counterparts," she said.Journalist and activist Wajeha H. Al-Huwaider, meanwhile, posted a YouTube video of herself driving—which is illegal in Saudi Arabian cities—to try and prod the country's repressive monarchy toward reform. "We live in a very dark area," she said, adding that the country's closed society and close relationships with Western governments mean stories of repression are less likely to be heard. "We have no rights. The only thing we have, everywhere you go—mosques."Yet in countries like these, pushing for women's rights carries real-world danger. Tahmasebi mentioned that members of her group have been dragged by police from parks and subways. And as Egypt showed this week, even after revolutions come, the fight for real democracy may be far from over. "The moment when women are in the streets and asking for change is not a unique moment," said Zainab Salbi, the Iraqi founder of Women for Women International, an organization that helps women in post-conflict nations. "The moment when they're told to go back home is also not unique."The real test, she said, comes in deciding to stay.