CAIRO: When historians and political analysts first discussed a clash of civilizations, they were referring to a conflict that would arise due to cultural and religious differences in the post-Cold War years. In the world of feminism, however, such clash is born from a difference in age.
In the Arab world, young feminists are finding it hard to carve a space for themselves among an older, more experienced generation of female activists.
Last week, 20 participants from across seven Arab countries came to Cairo for a four-day meeting to kick off the first Young Arab Feminist Network (YAFN), an initiative fueled by a determination to seek gender equality, and a desire “be taken seriously,” according to one Egyptian founder, Engy Ghozlan.
Ghozlan, who worked with several women’s organizations, recalls a recurrent conversation that, to her, describes the clash between old and young feminists in Egypt.
“This is what they tell us: ‘Where have you been in 1987 when I was doing this and that?’” “Well I wasn’t here,” she quickly replies, “but now I’m here and I have something to say.”
It seems that there is a lack of communication between two not-so-old civilizations, the traditional, experienced feminists and the younger, tech-savvy of the league.
Three years ago, young Arab feminists came together in Morocco at a meeting hosted by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development. It was there that participants realized the need to create a support network for young female activists across the Arab world.
YAFN is a network of young feminists and activists who are encouraging a new discourse of feminism, one that transcends differences between specific viewpoints within the larger spectrum of the ideology. In addition, the movement wishes to challenge the bureaucratic nature they claim have been character of most women’s rights organizations in the Arab world.
“One of our main values is that we accept diversity and that we accept that we are not all equal on our feminist theories. We all have different approaches and that does not make any of us less than the other,” said Ghozlan in the garden of the Swiss Club in Cairo last Sunday.
“We have people who are staunch secularists and we have people who are Islamic feminists,” Marwa Sharaf El-Din, women’s rights activist and co-founder of YAFN, added.
Meanwhile, the founders wish to change the “stagnant and bureaucratic” nature of women’s organizations today.
“We are sick and tired of hierarchies,” said Sharaf El-Din, referring to a recurrent scenario where heads of organizations are unwilling to step down and create space for fresh blood.
“We want to see change; we want to see positive change, and we will make it. It’s just easier when you make it together than when you make it alone,” said Sharaf El-Din.
“Sometimes it was a little bit hard to express our own thoughts and the project we want to carry out in our respective organizations,” she added, which birthed the idea of forming “a safe space for young women to express such thoughts.”
Stemming from their conviction that fluidity of knowledge and support to one another is key to succeeding, YAFN members wish to focus on a culture of “critical feminist engagement” where self-evaluation becomes an integral component.
“We are thinking that there could be more of an online existence, for example,” added Ghozlan, maintaining that the movement is not against traditional feminist initiatives but sees room for new developments and new blood.
The kick off
Between April 29 and May 2, YAFN members were drafting a strategic plan for the network, outlining its values and discussing plans for the coming year.
“We decided we want to do a big meeting for young feminists, for older feminists, for people who are interested in the topic to exchange knowledge, to exchange experiences, to learn from each other, to show solidarity with each other. And you don’t have to be a feminist to come,” said Sharaf El-Din.
With only one main activity on next year’s agenda, YAFN wishes to encourage offshoot projects that come up as they year unfolds. With such strategy in mind, YAFN is leaving room for each member to come up and implement a project in their respective communities, projects that will be nurtured by the support of other members in the network.
After a four-day meeting, participants were pleased with the outcome.
“I can’t believe it actually happened and that it happened the way it did; the openness, the criticism, the determination. This is something we have all been yearning for,” said Sharaf El-Din about the last four days.
Similarly, Ghozlan said: “It was very enlightening. There was a lot of commitment and people felt that they really need this.”
“It was the most comfortable and open space that I feel I have been in such a long time,” said Nadia Da’er, Yemeni-Indian member of YAFN who took part in the meeting.
“I hope that this network expands its reach to other women who might not call themselves feminists or might not have these spaces available to them,” added Da’er.
Marwa, one of the YAFN founders, listens during the meeting.