How Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s tragic murder united women of Tha’era

(Above: Members of Tha’era participate in best practice exchange with UK Labour Party)

“I felt if the sun would never shine again,” a member of Tha’era, the Arab Women’s Network for Parity and Solidarity, says, recalling her emotions when she heard that Shaimaa al-Sabbagh had been shot dead by a police officer in Cairo in January 2015. “I cried and felt that all is lost… Shaimaa was a dear friend and I felt that all the work she did would go down the drain. It was one of the darkest days of my life.” Out of this tragedy came a search for justice – and the realisation that international networks of the kind supported by the Labour Party through its Westminster Foundation for Democracy work really can make a difference.

Shaimaa, a member of Tha’era and Egypt’s Socialist People’s Alliance Party, was 31 years old when she died. At the time her son Bilal was five years old. Marking the anniversary of the Tahrir Square events of 2011, Shaimaa and colleagues were marching peacefully to lay roses at a memorial to those killed in the uprising when police opened fire on them with birdshot. Shaimaa was hit in the neck and bled to death on the pavement. An image of her captured by an Egyptian photographer was seen across the world, and became an iconic symbol of the events of that day, when ten other demonstrators also died.

Immediately, women involved in Tha’era took action. They contacted one another and drafted a letter to the Egyptian President, the Prime Minister and the Attorney General asking for a “transparent public investigation concerning her death”. They also contacted organisations in Europe, the UK and the USA to ask them to put pressure on the Egyptian government to take action. They used the Tha’era Facebook page to keep one another informed of what was happening. Tha’era members organised demonstrations in support of Shaimaa in member countries and posted pictures of them.

Tha’era’s response was “unexpected” and “surprising”, says Mariam, the Tha’era member interviewed for this case study, whose name has been changed because she wishes to remain anonymous. “Shaimaa was very enthusiastic about Tha’era, but many of us did not understand the purpose of Tha’era and just thought of it like another foreign formation. We did not understand that the response could work or do anything.”

Yet it did make a difference. In February the President referred to Shaimaa as a martyr and “the daughter of Egypt” and asked the Interior Minister to “uncover the truth” behind her death. “It was like a miracle when Sisi was talking about Shaimaa and accepting to launch an investigation,” Mariam says. The investigation which subsequently took place resulted in the conviction and sentencing of a police officer for her death. “It gave us back hope and the strength to follow in Shaimaa’s steps and keep her fight against social injustice and human rights alive. It gave us back a trust in international solidarity and the West.”

(Above: Tha’era Arab Women’s Network for Parity and Solidarity visit Fabian Society)

After the Arab Spring

The ‘Arab Spring’ that blossomed in 2011 brought great hope of steps towards democracy, freedom and the rule of law in the MENA region.

In the upheaval of the Arab Spring that blossomed in 2011, which brought great hope of steps towards democracy, freedom and the rule of law in the MENA region, women were often involved at the forefront of new populist movements. Ironically, though, the changes they achieved often had the effect of threatening or undermining their status. In areas where upheavals have been substantial or prolonged, women’s safety has frequently been compromised, with Egypt sometimes now cited as the most dangerous Arab country for women. In some countries war has had a devastating effect on women’s rights, whilst in others (for instance, Libya) women’s rights activists have been specifically targeted for attack and even assassination.

“Unrest and a fluid situation plagues the countries and societies where Tha’era is situated,” Mariam explains. “Tha’era enabled social democratic women to network across borders to achieve major results within the short period since Tha’era has been formed., Lots has been done on the levels of internal structure, international solidarity, capacity building and name recognition.”

In Morocco, for example, the network has supported its members in reforming the law relating to rape. In Lebanon, following a lobbying effort from 11 Tha’era members from around the region, Mariam says the Progressive Socialist Party’s Secretary-General was compelled to pledged to set up a mechanism to increase the presence of women in electoral lists in cooperation and coordination with the woman organization in the party. “These, among other actions, could not have been achieved without the strong network constructed by Tha’era.”

Supporting Tha’era’s development as an international network

The process of building the network began in January 2012 by the women’s organisations of social democratic parties in four MENA countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. The name ‘Tha’era’ was agreed upon both because of its meaning (a rebel woman) and because it would work linguistically across the region.

Having agreed on the network’s vision and mission, and formulating an Action Plan, the next step was a Train the Trainers (TOT) manual so that there was a framework in place early on to spread the knowledge and skills gained. A series of training sessions took place at both the national and regional level, so that the network could take hold. “The overall objective is to support women in social democratic parties to reach parity out of a belief that women’s rights cannot be achieved except through if women reach leadership positions in parties and governments,” Mariam says.

Throughout this process, Tha’era received assistance from the UK Labour Party and WFD. “They provided guidance and shadowing which are two crucial factors in the formation of networks,” Mariam says. “Tha’era is today a network that stands on its own feet drawing its strength from the fact that its members are veteran activists in parties; though it is important to stress the importance of funding during the start-up phase.”

The TOT Manual has become a key achievement of the network, as it lays out in clear detail the modules for use in training grassroots members of the various political parties. It was put together in English and translated into Arabic, and will remain as a resource for women in parties in which such resources are sometimes few and far between. Women attending Tha’era meetings have been able to exchange experience and expertise about the various challenges facing them, and the group’s Facebook page has done much to continue this conversation.

Mariam adds: “Tha’era is a good example of how donor organisations can fund projects that emanate from the needs of the beneficiaries and in parallel shadow the project in order to fill in the gaps coming from lack of experience. The Labour Party’s support takes roots in mutual trust, hearing your beneficiary, and providing the needed professional assistance.”

Over 100 women have now been trained by Tha’era using the Manual. Some of these women will themselves go on to train others, giving the training a range and reach it would not otherwise have. This training is particularly relevant for women away from capital cities who may be new to politics or to public activity, so that training in areas such as public speaking or campaign strategy is particularly valuable. As a consequence, women in communities that have traditionally been difficult for parties to reach have been able to access political skills and information. This training would almost certainly not have happened had Tha’era not existed, but it is essential if women in the region are to develop further as political activists and leaders.

The sustainability of the network has allowed the women involved to learn about one another’s activism and adapt what they learn to their own circumstances. The availability of the Facebook page has also facilitated this. The sharing of posts has disseminated women’s success across a wide area, and has been a major contributor to the forming of the ‘solidarity chain’ referred to in Tha’era’s mission. These connections were able to facilitate meetings between Tha’era members and women ambassadors of four European countries in Egypt.

“Exchange of experience and knowledge is very important and Tha’era offers an open space where women from the region can strategize together and launch joint campaigns,” Mariam says. “International solidarity has proved to be effective in assisting women facing governmental pressure and discrimination, Tha’era has the network needed to reach likeminded institutions and parties around the world. On the capacity-building level, and for fundraising purpose, Tha’era empowers the joining of forces that is cost-effective and amplifies impact.”

What next for Tha’era?

Tha’era has brought together a group of very capable and committed women – and enabled them to work proactively on an original, useful and targeted project. What does the future hold? “Consolidation and more consolidation,” Mariam says, “in order to provide a wider open space for social democratic women across the region, increase international solidarity, and try to build the capacity of women activists.”

The network can now face the future on a sustainable footing, has shown itself resilient to challenges, and aims to continue being a leading voice for women’s equality and political participation in such an important region of the world. It’s important for a network like Tha’era to exist, Mariam says, “because it can change things and support young women activist become stronger, it empowers us”.

The tragic story of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s death has shown this importance. Asked what Tha’era’s response to the events of January 24 2015 ultimately achieved, Mariam put it simply: “Justice for Shaimaa.”

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