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Heavenly virgins hold no sway over freedom-fighting females

''I AM with the uprising of women in the Arab world because I would prefer to be free on this earth [than be] a heavenly virgin.''

Revealing only her eyes, the young Syrian woman called Lama became one of thousands to post her message on an activist Facebook page that has attracted more than 82,000 followers and exposed a renewed personal and political struggle for women's rights all over the Arab world.

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Arab women flock to support site

Sally Zohney, of 'The Uprising of Women in the Arab World' Facebook page, explains how supporters can upload photos and exchange stories.

The idea is simple: post a picture of yourself with the phrase ''I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because … '' and finish the sentence with your reason.

''I strongly support the uprising of women in the Arab world because I am tired of asking my custodian permission for every single action,'' wrote Amal, from Saudi Arabia.

''How can we pretend that we're fighting dictatorship when each of us is a dictator with his mother or sister or wife or daughter?'' the Egyptian film director Amr Salama posted. ''If we treat them like slaves they shall only bring up slaves.''

At first the photographs and messages just trickled in - about 20 a day - but the page was quickly overwhelmed by hundreds of posts and hundreds more comments, sparking often furious debates.


The campaign recently celebrated its first anniversary, and the posts are still flowing.

One teenage boy from Saudi Arabia posted: ''I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because I am 16 years old and, according to the law, I am the guardian of my widowed mother. Revolt, mother! You are strong, you are free!''

''It just boomed, and suddenly we could not leave our computers,'' said Sally Zohney, 27, a feminist activist and United Nations worker from Cairo who is one of the four administrators of The Uprising of Women in the Arab World page.

''It takes a lot for a woman to convince her parents, or go behind her parents, to accept that she wants to take her picture to go online, on the internet, where thousands or millions would see her,'' Ms Zohney said.

''I am still overwhelmed by women who will post a picture and say 'I got raped' in communities where they still blame the victim, even if she was a kid when it happened.''

Women have been on the front lines of the revolutions that have swept the Middle East and North Africa, often fighting for the freedom of their country at the same time as they battled the conservative attitudes of their fellow protesters.

Ms Zohney said that during the revolution in Egypt, men had ''a very stereotypical image that women would withdraw with the first tear-gas cannon and men would stay, but in so many cases it was not like this''.

''Young feminists have bravely claimed a new space in which to continue the work of the thousands of equally brave feminist activists who came before them,'' said Vanessa Farr, an academic and author who specialises in women's issues in the region.

It is 89 years since Huda Shaarawi, one of the leaders of Egypt's modern feminist movement, returned from a women's conference in Rome and removed her veil as she left her train in Cairo. Other women at the station imitated her actions in what was described in Shaarawi's biography Casting Off the Veil as a ''landmark gesture in Egyptian history''.

The Uprising campaign experienced a setback last month, when Facebook suspended the page over what it said were complaints about one image - that of Dana Bakdounis.

The young woman posted a photograph of herself with short cropped hair while holding her passport representing her veiled image, and a statement which read: ''I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body.''

Prompting an avalanche of criticism on social media and a fierce protest over what the campaign's administrators described as censorship, Facebook lifted its suspension on the four women and reposted Bakdounis's picture.

While still maintaining a strong presence on Facebook, the campaign now has its own website to ensure there is no further censorship.