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4:22 p.m., Feb. 26, 2009----At the beginning of her Feb. 25 Global Agenda talk, “Understanding the Arabs,” Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning columnist and international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues, explained that she was there to “confuse whatever idea you have of what the Arab world is like, and what the Arabs are like.”
During the course of her lecture, held in the University of Delaware's Mitchell Hall, Eltahawy focused mostly on an unlikely sign of progress in the Arab world -- blogs.
“Our most precious resource is our young people, and our young people today are taking part in politics and going online and literally creating a virtual world online that does not exist for them in the real world,” she said.
Eltahawy described the poor state of women's rights in Egypt and gave an example of how in October 2006 bloggers made a difference after “a group of young men went on a rampage in downtown Cairo, sexually assaulting dozens of women as the police stood by and did absolutely nothing.”
The Egyptian government even went so far as to deny that the attack happened, she said.
“What did happen,” Eltahawy explained, “the proof that we have that the attacks happened, is that these young Egyptians that are now blogging and going on-line to express themselves and get their alternative view out, some of them actually witnessed these sexual assaults and took pictures and filmed them using their mobile phones.
“Because of the videotape and because they blogged about it, what they did was literally open the flood gate because hundreds of young Egyptian women went on these blogs and shared their own experiences with sexual harassment.”
Flash forward to 2008, and for the first time in Egyptian history, she said, a man was sent to jail for three years for groping a woman in public.
That was followed by “another case of young men in the streets of Cairo again assaulting women,” she said, adding, “only this time, guess what, the police intervened and they arrested about 48 men, many of whom were let go for lack of evidence, but one of them was sent to jail for one year for sexual harassment.”
These acts of sexual harassment probably also would have gone un-reported, according to Eltahawy, “until the bloggers put it on the news agenda.”
Eltahawy believes that bloggers have already been, and will continue to be, agents for change in the Arab world, giving a voice to those who were previously denied.
“The young people are our greatest resource because they are creating a world on-line that does not exist in the real world because they are marginalized,” she said. “In the Arab world, the most marginalized groups of people are young people and women. They don't have access to mainstream media, they don't have access to the establishment politics, so they go on-line and they create a space that is now impacting the real world. The virtual world is now having an impact on the real world.”
The talk was part of the Global Agenda 2009 program “Tinderbox: Understanding the Middle East,” which will take place at 7:30 p.m., every other Wednesday during the spring semester.
The next talk is by Rami G. Khouri, a Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. citizen whose family resides in Beirut, Amman, and Nazareth, and is titled, “Understanding the Conflict.” It will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11.
For more information on the Global Agenda series, visit the Web site.
Article by Adam Thomas
Photo by Duane Perry