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2012 National Women's Conference
19 October 2011

It is a sad truth that opportunities for capitalising on the success of union activity within the recent Arab uprisings have mostly been missed by the mainstream press. Some of you may have read, in tiny snippets, or in specialist media that unions have been a powerful element in generating the Arab Spring. In some countries the organised demands for constitutional change have actually been led by union activists.

However, the mainstream press have committed very little airtime or space to investigating the true extent of trade union influence on the Arab Spring, and even less on the outcomes caused by women trade union activists.

This means that unions are not getting the credit they are due for this historic movement; a movement that is popular with the British public and has been described at a recent party conference as “undoubtedly having the potential to bring about the greatest single advance in human freedom since the end of the Cold War”.

Unions may not be getting the credit they deserve, but for some of the women activists the situation is far worse. Many have been, and are still being, raped, beaten and detained in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Despite assurances from the King of Bahrain in June that military trials of pro reform protesters would be transferred to civilian courts, both the vice president of the Bahrain Teachers Union (Jalila al-Salman) and the head of the Bahrain Nursing Society (Roula al-saffar) are awaiting a military trial. Both women report having been tortured and have been on hunger strike while in detention.

Middle Eastern women’s activism in their unions is not new. As Maya Jribi, a successful activist in Eygpt put “The women’s role has been huge, not just in the revolution, but for years before it, from supporting strikes to staging sit-ins”.

But the women are now afraid that their efforts risk going unrewarded, and that men who were keen to have them on the streets crying “Freedom” may not be so happy to have them in positions of power. Once concern on the secular left is that the return of Islamist parties could reverse gains made on women’s rights. An Egyptian protester told Catherine Ashton, (EU foreign policy) during a recent visit to Tahrir Square: “The men were keen for me to be here when we were demanding that Mubarak should go. But now he has gone, they want me to go home”.

In view of the impending season of action, and the prevalence of damaging media reports, we ask the National Women’s Committee to highlight maximum exposure of the positive aspects of union action in the success of the Arab Spring, and in particular women’s union action, where appropriate.

We further instruct the National Women’s Committee to:

1)Liaise with UNISON’s National International Committee to promote awareness of women specific atrocities in countries that fall within the international work programme, and to further encourage UNISON’s Regional International Committees to include a gender element to their work programmes.

2)Make every effort to work with the International Committee, in solidarity with other trade unions, to campaign against military trials for women trade unionists in Bahrain and other Middle East countries.

Women may have contributed significantly to the Arab Spring, but it remains to be see if the Arab Spring will contribute to empowering of Arab women workers and union activists. Let’s at least make sure that our union is at the forefront of supporting that contribution.