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First among equals?
Lauded in the West for their glamour and social activism, the region’s First Ladies are making a name for themselves. But the reality of their situation is far more complex, says Trends magazine.
March 2, 2010 12:20 by Jane Meikle
Egyptian women’s rights activist Gihan Abou Zeid says that “[the First Lady] is in a very hard position. She’s victim and perpetrator at the same time. She’s half-half. She’s passive but she’s an actor.” In other words, a first lady is also a political subject, and in that sense her scope is limited.
Egyptian activist, doctor, and author Nawal Saadawi is more damning. “[First Ladies] want to show the people that the regime is okay. Even if the regime can be oppressive and exploitative, they have to follow their husband … I give them a name in Arabic, ‘Nisa al Ghul’. It means they live in the shadow of their husband. It means women of the shade.”
However, journalist, author, and activist Rana Husseini, whose work with the ‘Jordan Times’ brought the issue of honor crimes to the public eye, presented her work as an example of what can be achieved when the first lady’s position is leveraged behind a social issue.
“She is a powerful advocate. The King and the Queen are very concerned about this issue, and they really want to see that change. The courts now are starting to hand the killers of honor crimes much higher sentences,” said Husseini.
“Her support is much more important to me than what the Queen wore that day or where the Queen went,” she continued. “She has to live her life. At the end of the day, she’s a Queen. She has to follow protocols and procedures in a certain way.”
Then there is Suzanne Mubarak, who has decades of experience as a women and children’s advocate in Egypt and the Arab world. An impressive list of initiatives bear her name, including the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement, the National Council for Women, which acts to include women in political and development initiatives, poverty eradication programs and the fight to eradicate female genital mutilation. “Everyone in the world says that Suzanne Mubarak ended female mutilation,” said Saadawi.
“For almost 60 years, I have been writing and fighting and mobilizing people in Egypt against female circumcision. And then suddenly the credit went to her.
“She overshadows all the women’s organizations, all the women leaders, and she becomes the only one involved – like her husband.”
“Of course people are afraid to criticize her,” Saadawi continued. “I paid a very very high price in Egypt because I criticized all First Ladies.”