Christina Patterson: Lessons in freedom from the sisters of the Arab Spring

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

History is, alas, largely made by men.

In Libya, it is men, and mostly young men, who are trying to oust a dictator who swears that he will die on Libyan soil. The men, who make up in enthusiasm what they lack in training, discipline, and, on some of the evidence, common sense, are hoping, inshallah, inshallah, that their struggles will bring freedom. Without the full force of Western firepower, they're unlikely to. Even with it, it's looking far from good. You can't win a war through bombs alone, and particularly when the people who are doing the bombing aren't even meant to be fighting one.

We can't know if the men who are trying to defeat the men who are in charge will succeed, and if they do, which men will take over. It's possible that the men who do, if they do, will be nice and kind and civilised and efficient, but it's also possible that they won't. It's possible that they'll be more like the men who have taken over in the countries where the men have succeeded in defeating the men who were in charge: men such as Field Marshal Tantawi, who is now running Egypt, and who was a childhood friend of Mubarak's, and who this week sent troops to fire on the crowds protesting against him. We can hope – we can really, really hope – that the new men will be better than the old men, and ideally not friends of the old men, or sons of the old men, but one thing we do know: they will be men.

It was, however, women who sparked the first uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Deraa a month ago. It was women who marched down to the police station when their sons were beaten up and tortured after painting anti-Assad slogans, and demanded their release. If you think it's upsetting to be kettled, you might not appreciate quite what it takes to stand up to the Syrian police. You might not appreciate, for example, that Syrian police don't get summoned to public inquiries for wearing their identity badge in a place where no one can read it.

It was women who this week blocked a main coastal road in north-eastern Syria, and demanded the release of hundreds of men who have been locked up. The men were locked up for standing peacefully in a street and saying that they would quite like to have a government they could elect, and ideally one that didn't lock up and torture the people who didn't like it. The government, which is headed by a man who's married to a woman who recently told Vogue that she was interested in "the empowerment of civil society", decided, on this occasion, to try to calm the women down. They did this by releasing some of the men who had been locked up. Many of them had bruises and broken bones.

It was a woman who this week went on hunger strike in Bahrain. She went on hunger strike because her father was seized by masked soldiers, and beaten unconscious, and taken, with her husband and her brother-in-law, into custody. Zainab al-Khawaja has said that she will leave her 18-month-old daughter with her aunts and grandmother if she dies. "I am," she said, "willing to go all the way. We have the feeling that sacrifices are necessary to bring changes to our country."

In Egypt, women stood in Tahrir Square alongside the men. In the new, post-revolution Egypt, they suffer alongside them, too. On 9 March, a 20-year-old hairdresser called Salwa al-Housiny Gouda was arrested for taking part in anti-government protests. With about 18 other women, she was handcuffed to the gates of the Egyptian Museum, slapped, beaten and given electric shocks. Later, she was taken into a military prison. With six soldiers standing behind her, she was subjected to a "virginity exam" undertaken by a man. She was also told that she faced charges of prostitution. "They know," she told a reporter from The New York Times, "that the way they can harm a woman most is accusing her of prostitution."

This is what life is like for many Muslim women. It's what life is like before revolutions, and during revolutions, and after revolutions. It's what life is like in countries where many women are highly educated, such as Egypt and Syria, and in countries such as Libya where most aren't. In Saudi Arabia, where there won't be a revolution, or at least there won't be a revolution that succeeds, women can't drive, vote, enter into a legal agreement, or even get medical care without a guardian's consent. A "guardian", of course, being another word for a man.

Forgive me, then, if I find it really rather hard to get worked up about the right of Muslim women in France to conceal everything from their fellow citizens except their eyes. Forgive me if I think that there are days when we'd all quite like to be invisible. And that there are other days when we feel fed up, and would quite like to yell out random abuse to strangers. But that we don't, or mostly we don't, because we know it's bad manners to yell out random abuse to strangers, just as it's bad manners, in a Western culture in a public place, to cover your face.

I think, to echo Vince Cable on David Cameron and immigration, that it's unwise to ban things unless it's absolutely necessary, because some people, even though they say they want to be invisible, are also very keen on getting attention, and making a fuss. They seem to think that a practice which isn't advocated in the Koran, and which is largely used to subjugate, and sexualise, women, and which is pushed by some of the most misogynistic clerics, and societies, in the world, is an important symbol of their identity. Some people, of course, think their tattoos and their nipple piercings are an important part of their identity. Some people seem to think that their identity matters more than anything else.

But some people, and an awful lot of Muslim women, would look at the citizens of a country where you're free to practise your religion, and do whatever job you like, and go wherever you like, and say whatever you like, and write whatever you like, and vote for whichever government you like, and think that this was freedom they couldn't even dream of. Some people would think that this was a freedom they would die for. Some people are dying for much less.

I wonder what those women who are dying for the freedom of other men and women think of women who think freedom is a black acrylic veil.

Encounters with a less than merry widow

It's possible, I suppose, that Clegg's eyes lit up when he arrived in Rochdale on Tuesday and saw a familiar figure blocking his path. It's possible that his heart skipped and his spirit sang at the sight of the pensioner who almost succeeded in turning Gordon Brown into King Lear. It's also possible that he took one look at that slightly grim face, and that extremely solid figure with shoulders set, as if squaring up for a fight, and thought it was the last effing straw.

It was, clearly, most unfortunate that Brown forgot to turn off his microphone after his little chat with Gillian Duffy this time last year. It was unfortunate that he didn't just answer her question about where "all these Eastern Europeans were flocking from" by politely suggesting that they might have come from Eastern Europe. It was also unfortunate that a woman whose style of questioning has all the aggression of a Paxman, but none of the substance, was hailed as a hero.

In her new role as the people's battering ram, Mrs Duffy demanded that Clegg look her "in the eye" and tell her that he was "happy" with the Coalition. "Let's face it," she said, "it's all gone wrong." She didn't, strangely, make any suggestions about what, in the absence of the party she helped to defeat, might have made it go right.

The encounter was, apparently, set up by Simon Danczuk, the local Labour MP, who's been boasting about her cheese and onion pie. He has also been boasting about their friendship. Which is, presumably, based on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Life isn't always a bowl of cherries

There is, surely, a PhD to be written about blossom and politics. The Arab Spring, for example, started with Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution. British politics this time last year seemed to be all about wisteria, and roses. And now, wherever you look, there are cherry trees. In the parks and squares of London, there are great clouds of petals that look as if they're about to burst into showers of pink rain.

And everywhere, there are cherries. Not, alas, lovely bowls of ripe cherries to ooze sweet, delicious juice, but cherries to argue about. Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms seem, as far as I can gather, to be all about private providers "cherry-picking" easy operations such as hernias instead of difficult ones such as kidney transplants. And now vice-chancellors at state-funded universities have joined the fruity fray. They are, apparently, terrified that private universities will "cherry pick" their most lucrative degrees.

I like cherries. I like the word "cherry". But I think the word these highly educated people are looking for is "choose".