A New Dawn In Cairo
Unprecedented images of women helping to topple a dictator in Cairo’s Tahrir square captured the world’s imagination. Now for the real revolution.
By: Manar Ammar | Photography by: Sallie Pisch As the events unfolding with such pace across the Middle East become increasingly militarized, it is worth remembering that the 18 days of protest that forced former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of power were sparked by the collective will of the country’s civilian population. Of all the images streaming around the world testifying to that movement, perhaps none were more extraordinary to Western eyes than the undeniable, unfettered presence of the region’s women activists. Long presumed cloistered from public discourse, suddenly there they were: thousands of Egyptian women standing up and being counted, in groups and alongside their male counterparts, taking Cairo’s Tahrir Square and demanding change, all delivered via satellite television, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all manner of broadcast, internet and social media channels. AcrossEgyptmillions of women became involved, organizing, chanting and leading. The media was flooded with pictures of women waving flags and placards, guiding protesters and simply being on the front lines. Not only did this positive image transmitted to the world allow those women to celebrate their hard-won victory with all Egyptians. It allowed them to fight another more personal battle in parallel, encouraging Middle Eastern women to go out and demand better rights for themselves and their compatriots in neighbouring countries throughout the region. Rasha M. was one of the activists who traveled some distance from Minya inUpper Egyptto the capital and spent many nights in the square during January and February. “I slept in one of the white tents in Tahrir when it was too late to return home,” she said. Rasha says that the truly “extraordinary” thing was how her family granted her the right to go out and protest, an affirming first hurdle and something young women all over the world can relate to. “My folks at home were okay with me sleeping in a tent, in a city seven or eight hours away, by myself and not once asked me any annoying questions like before,” she recalls excitedly. Rasha, who is in her last year of college where she is studying Arabic Literature, explained how she comes from a conservative family who would have never allowed her to spend the night out. “I felt proud to finally get the trust I deserve, and in a strange way, felt free,” she admitted. That trust and freedom was further affirmed on a larger scale on Saturday March 19, as Egyptians went to the polls for a referendum on the constitutional changes required to make Mubarak-s ouster official and to set the stage for democratic elections. For the first time in more than half a century,Egypt’s citizens did so not knowing in advance the outcome of the ballot. The Associated Press reported young people trading pictures of ink-stained fingers to boast of casting their first ever ballots. Another milestone in the offing is that when elected, that government may now feature democratically elected representatives who are also women. While many resilient Egyptian women have entered politics at the local level, they continue to face major cultural barriers from their male colleagues. InEgyptas in most of the region, political power lines have traditionally been drawn to exclude women. As the dust settles and the initial euphoria of theTahrir Squarevictory dies down, this may be the next battlefield for women’s rights. It won’t be easy. When the Egyptian army recently commissioned a highly respected legal committee to propose amendments to change the Constitution, no women were selected to take part. This continued a tradition of leaving women out of key jobs at all levels of political and judicial life. Indeed, just last year, women’s challenge to be eligible to become Supreme Council judges was rejectedby the state. Political opposition leader Gameela Ismail has been part of the recent change on many fronts. From her point of view, while the end of Mubarak’s regime may have opened up a forum to discuss a greater role for women outsideEgypt, inside the country’s borders, the struggle continues. “For women, it is more of the same. People continue to talk about qualifications for certain posts. This is a major problem when society believes there are no women capable. There are women equally qualified to be in government and unless society changes it’s perceptions toward women,” Ismail she says. “We know that the road ahead of us is long and tough… we know that we have a majority of Egyptians against us… and we know that one day, we will succeed. We have seen it in other countries, and so we will do the same here,” commented Egyptian activist Amira Emad. Just how tough has been borne out in subsequent protests. Indeed, leading and being instrumental during the protests did little to prevent a return to normalcy when women demanded their voices be heard. These women found out first-hand that non-violent protest can be not only a means for change but can also mean the dangers of fighting on the front lines. On the 100th anniversary of the International Women’s Day, women organized a protest to demand social equality and rights. The events that unfolded told a rather more unsettling truth, as some 100 women took to the streets on March 8 only to end up cornered and later assaulted by men. The women, who started the march at historicTahrir Squarein centralCairo, were holding signs for social equality and demanding a change to discriminatory laws, were then attacked by what the media called “anti-women march groups.” The female protesters were first faced with condescending remarks from bystanders, but in some cases these verbal attacks turned violent. “They raised their shoes at us, screamed at us, chanted at us, pushed us, insulted us. Some of these (purportedly) ‘anti-U.S.’ protestors were even women,” said Amira Mikhail, a feminist blogger who was present. She even ecalled that a number within the mob and who cornered women, were in fact women. “They should have been chanting: women want the fall of the masculine regime,” another activist that day said, mimicking the revolution chant “the people want the fall of the regime”. “There was a constant mob of men surrounding three of us and we decided to just leave.” Mikhail wrote on her blog (amiramikhail.blogspot.com). Te identity of the attackers was the subject of much debate in the country. Some said they were hired thugs by the government, sent to disrupt the protest, a theory that was encouraged by the fact that protesters in Egypt’s main square are routinely attacked by persons who are paid by the state. “Whether that is true or not we saw a very sad reality yesterday inEgypt. Because money doesn’t put words into those thugs’ mouths … the reality is even darker. These men’s presence against us, alone showed that there was no equality and respect,” she wrote. Mikhail said thatEgyptis more advanced than fellow Arab nations in the region, where women are barred from driving, working and even participating in politics, adding of women inEgypt, “we are freely and openly beaten without any protection from police, we are sexually harassed everywhere we go and no matter how we are dressed, and we are blamed for it all.” Others defended the premise that it is the people themselves who attacked the women, not paid thugs. Engy Ghozlan, a leading women’s rights activist and social worker in the country, said she was torn between the two ideas. She said that open discussion appears to be coming to a halt, even among activists who want a free and open society. Activists, she argued, do not want to admit there is a women’s problem. “People [activists] in Tahrir now are not accepting any other voices other than their own, and they think that the whole women’s rights thing is the business of the old regime, as the former first lady was famous for advocating women’s rights,” she argued. In fact, many see it the other way around. “Women have suffered more under the wrongful rule of Mubarak,” said Moneera Ali, a social worker and woman’s rights researcher. “They blame women for indecency, which is nonsense. The majority of Muslim women are veiled.” Sexual harassment has no clear definition in the Egyptian penal code and could mean anything from ogling to groping a woman’s body. In 2008, a landmark ruling saw an Egyptian man sentenced to three years in jail after groping a woman in the street. Because Noha Rushdi was able to bring witnesses of the assault to the police station, she was able to file a report against him that eventually took him to court, and saw a guilty verdict. That same year, a study published by theEgyptianCenterfor Women’s Rights (ECWR) in 2008, reported that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women have experience harassment on the streets. The study also proved that many of these women were wearing the Islamic veil, which diminished the myth that the veil stops sexual attacks. One leading advocate of women’s empowerment, ECWR chief Nehad Abu Komsan, suggested that the country needs no less than a full-scale cultural revolution. She argued that whatEgyptis witnessing is a political revolution, but for women to advance socially, perceptions must start to change in order to end the country’s dismissal of women, at the home, on the street and in government. She says the coming days will be vital not only for the country, but also for women. “We are in a ‘molding’ period right now; we are remaking our fate and as a woman and a new political activist, I believe that we could lose everything if we quiet our voices down right now.” That same fighting spirit is what made Rasha vow to go back toCairowhen her term exams are over. “Of course, I can’t wait. I feel like I am studying for the country, not for me.” Rasha is not alone in the fight. The 18 days of protest have galvanized millions of women across theMiddle Eastto go out in the streets and claim what is rightfully theirs. Women like Rasha who have never participated in politics before because of corruption and fear have found a new voice. Fighting corruption and ensuring that the gains of the revolution are preserved has become a top priority. Egyptian women, on the frontlines since the revolution started on January 25, continue to lead and organize, transforming their chants and efforts in the field into attainable results. “We have learned that nothing changes over night, that’s why we must pressure and pressure until all our demands are met. “ Rasha adds.