Several women union leaders fresh from the frontlines in Tunisia and Egypt visited California this month at the invitation of the AFL-CIO’s Sacramento Labor Council. They first appeared at the August 16 Women of Labor conference attended by 200 women union leaders throughout the state.
In the days following, there have been other fruitful exchanges between the overseas guests and American audiences quite eager to learn and, perhaps, shed some Western misconceptions about the role of women in the rebellions marking the region.
“Until now men have always considered us second class,” explained Nahed Ben Dakhla, a Women’s Committee member from Tunisia’s powerful national trade union federation, UGTT. But in both Tunisia and Egypt, she emphasized at a August 18 meeting in San Francisco‘s Mission district, “men saw us in the front lines preventing the police from making contact. We stood between them and police bullets.”
“As a result of mass participation by both men and women struggling together, the revolution has changed everything. There has been an awakening of a communal spirit. We are not going back.”
Stepping closer to me with her face full of emotion, Nahed passionately conveyed a dramatic image from those early days of police violence in the region where hundreds were killed and thousands injured. These losses are deeply imbedded in the consciousness of millions.
Not just an empty slogan of bravado
“The revolution has changed everything, we are not going back” was a mantra I heard often repeated on the streets of Cairo when I arrived last February, only a few hours after President Hosni Mubarak’s forced resignation. I heard it voiced again by Nahed and others on the podium in San Francisco now some six months later.
This should not be misread as shallow enthusiasm. Enshrined in mass consciousness is the belief, and even the expectation, that possibilities for change are endless.
This emotional spirit embodies the political conviction that “there is no going back” and is one major reason the mass reform movements in both Tunisian and Egypt have not been sidelined or demobilized by still-entrenched remnants of the old regimes.
The momentum continues, according to Marwa Khalil Farghali Khalil, General Secretary of the influential Public Tax Authority Union in Egypt. With some deserved pride, she announced to the San Francisco meeting that “there were four independent unions before the January revolution. Now, we have 88 new unions with a membership of 250,000 in our Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU).”
“And our Tunisian national trade union federation (UGTT),” echoed Ayda Zerai, secretary general of a garment workers local union, “has grown 35 percent since the uprising. We are now 700,000 as a result of the prominent role we played in challenging the regime leading to the downfall of dictator Ben Ali.
“Without labor, there would have been no revolution in Tunisia!” Ayda proclaimed.
All speakers agreed that there are big opportunities, along with major challenges, to really change society. “When the Prime Minister told the UGTT to stop striking and protesting, we refused. The government does not have much power because they refuse to follow through on the hopes of the revolution.
“We in the UGTT persisted and recently won a five-percent wage increase, not just for our members but for all Tunisian workers,” Ayda told an enthusiastic audience that immediately erupted into cheers.
The women unionists from Egypt told of a similar focus by the EFITU to continue strikes and protests as necessary in order to achieve economic and social reforms. Their persistence also resulted several months ago in substantial increases in wages and benefits.
The revolution is incomplete
“Our revolution is not finished” was another theme of the speakers. In Tunisia, for example, many democratic reforms have yet to be achieved. “Women have not been appointed to key positions of power and we are hoping this changes with the revolution,” Nahed said.
Madga Mohamed Ibrahim, a leader of the very active Sales Tax Union in Egypt, followed her Tunisian sister by acknowledging that the “representation of women is still inadequate on all levels.”
Marwa was clearly speaking for the whole delegation from both countries when she commented that “the main obstacle is to rid us of all levels of the old regime, not just the top but mid-level too. We need further cleansing,” she said to big applause.
One last thing
As the speakers were rushing to their hotel to rest after ending their Ramadan Muslim religious Fast, Marwa stopped me to make a point she wanted very much to emphasize.
“Women now comprise fifty percent of the free trade unions (EFITU) national membership. That being said, we are not about to go back,” she said. She clearly wanted me to fully appreciate the determination of women to push forward.
I took the opportunity to ask her what she learned about American people during her short stay. I observed that there was good and bad in this country — with the bad including lots of discrimination against Muslims.
Marwa nodded in agreement and said that before leaving Egypt, her union hosted an American delegation that discerningly readied her for what to expect. But since arriving, she said approvingly, “I have changed my mind about America.”
The translator, a native Arabic-speaker now residing in this country, quickly and knowingly cautioned me that the women had only appeared before very friendly audiences.
Our resident translator, it seems, picked up on the quandary we Americans know only too well — our better side does not always represent the whole.