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On International Women's Day, Demand That Uprisings Throughout the Middle East Overturn Patriarchal Tradition

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On Sunday in the Ivory Coast, women were massacred in an ambush while protesting peacefully in the streets. Last week in Libya, women were gunned down while being used as human shields by mercenaries. Still, despite these attacks, women are out in protest across the Middle East and beyond, asking insistently for change, fundamental fairness, and their rightful place in society.

Women have taken part in revolutions before in the Arab world, and, despite a change of the guard, their plight has consistently remained unchanged. They are sent home with little impact to their immediate lives despite their sacrifices. Economic participation remains limited, social inclusion is inhibited, and full civic participation is still elusive, even as we mark the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.

Why is there such resistance to women's rights and economic freedom across the Arab world?

Some contemplate that it may be religion. Some think it must be the nature of the Eastern woman. Some have come to believe it is simply the eternal destiny of Arab women to serve, rather than to be served.

Truth be known, it is tradition, simply deep-rooted Tradition.

It has been long ingrained in mythology and legendry that the good Eastern woman is to serve quietly and to live out her days subservient to the dictates of her master and patriarch. Today, as modernity would have it, many young women in the East are questioning the wisdom of this tradition and its applicability to their emancipated instincts.

Women who live in societies where they are required to cover their heads as a condition of being female necessarily live in a society that expects them to be subservient. That is not to say that all women who choose to wear head coverings are subservient. No. If that is a choice made of free will and not higher command, then it is independent of coercion and emblematic of a faith that is to be respected. However, when tradition compels the woman to be marked as separate and apart from the men, there is an element of control.

When I see pictures of emancipated women with flowing hair and makeup, yelling in protest on the streets of the Arab world alongside their veiled sisters, I worry. I worry that the two groups are not hollering for the same kind of change. They stand next to each other, grudgingly smiling at one another in hopes of respectful coexistence, thrusting their fists and voices into the sky as one voice for change, but the new order will not suit them both the same. One is risking life and limb for change that she thinks will mean equality and emancipation for women, while the other is taking part in an exercise to consolidate the power of religio-centered politics with its influence in civic life.

To see a change in the Middle East toward fundamental fairness and equality for women, the vernacular of society has to change, just as fundamentally as the politics. No government anywhere across the domino landscape of revolutionary Middle East today will proclaim the equal rights of women and actually grant those rights to them without the sustained and committed pressure of regular men and women in society, who stand up and assert that fundamental fairness and not a skewed custom of long outdated conventions should rule the land.

Tradition has long trumpeted the subservience of women, whereas it must yield to democratic systems that champion their empowerment.

As we mark 100 years of International Women's Day, talking heads and pundits who have attained the emancipated status of "role models" sit in the comfort of television studios and theorize about the plight of women in Arab countries who are displaying the courage for change. They proclaim that until women attain educational and economic equality, they cannot be truly empowered. But to begin to attain that equality, women must battle Tradition -- and tradition will be tightly held in place by strong-willed men loath to give up the power it gives them. For that reason, pro-democracy organizations everywhere must raise a collective howl against the prevalent domestic exploitation and abuse of women in villages and towns across the Arab world.

Well-funded, well-connected, well-networked organizations that aid, empower and represent the rights of women should come together and fuel grassroots efforts that provide basic support to women and girls across the Arab world. These organizations must win people over to the idea that women are equal and that they must have fundamental human rights.

Starting this year, on the centennial of a long-standing global struggle for women's rights, let us stand together, make a difference, and change women's lives forever -- for the better.

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