“I’m a Muslim and I think that empowers me.” Maryam Alkhawaja is a Bahraini human rights activist and a strong advocate for the Bahraini revolution. Her sister is currently serving a 7 day sentence in Bahrain, charged with ‘illegal gathering’ and ‘incitement to hatred of the regime’.

“The Quran was interpreted by men to suit them.” Mervat Mhani is a Libyan activist working towards the development of Libyan society with her NGO Free Generation Movement.

“Human dignity is not a Western concept… Women’s rights are not culture dependent.” Sussan Tahmasebi is an Iranian women’s rights activist and founding member of the One Million Signatures movement.

If women of the Middle East are to overcome the decades of reduced access to civil liberties and participation in society, they must take matters into their own hands and empower themselves. There is very little the west can do anymore. That was one of the conclusions that could be drawn from the discussion at the Frontline Club‘s collaboration with BBC Arabic.

Mervat Mhani said that Western governments are seen as supporters of autocratic regimes and so anything perceived to be from the West is rejected. “The best way to help is to condemn all human rights violations,” she said. The key is to listen to and understand the culture in order to avoid disrespecting it. But she added that western NGOs and individuals can help by providing capacity building for women, training and workshops in self-empowerment, politics, leadership.

Maryam Alkhawaja said there’s also a problem in the First Ladies of the Arab world claiming to stand for women’s rights. How can someone claim that to be an advocate for the empowerment of women when their main function is as a wife? “It will take women who fought the revolutions to decide to continue the revolution as a revolution for women.”

Mervat Mhani thinks there’s hope. “I don’t see women stepping back and letting men take over,” she said. “A woman can be president and a Muslim.”

People may say that women have no experience of politics in Libya, or inded elsewhere in the Middle East, but as Lindsay Hilsum, international editor at Channel 4 news, chairing the talk, pointed out: nor do the men! So why should they have any less of a chance at contributing?

Sussan Tahmasebi is concerned that men will say “You did your part for the revolution, now go back home and look after your family.” But of course, “It’s not democracy if half the population has half rights.”

She made a plea to the new governments and councils forming in the region: “Draft laws that you can defend against your children in 30 years. Draft them so your kids don’t go to jail when they become politically active and question the system.”