Women of the Egyptian Revolution PDF Print

egyptw1Published: 5 April 2011

Region: Egypt & Worldwide

Egypt is not particularly unusual in being a deeply patriarchal society, but the popular uprising earlier this year seemed about to change all that. At first, women were noticeable by their absence from the media coverage that flooded the world's screens and swamped its newspapers and magazines. The mainstream media in the West gave the impression of an exclusively male revolution. But within days - and thanks largely to new media - it became clear that women were out there in force; not just shouting for change but making it happen. That's the nature of revolutions - old oppressions are swept aside by the force of historic change and new opportunities are everywhere. At the fulcrum of revolution everything seems possible. Yet tradition and culture don't just shrink away into the past; they lurk in the dark corners and shadows of the present. In Egypt, the patriarchy survives - there are no women in the transitional government and the Muslim Brotherhood has yet to rebrand itself. While the world's media have discovered the women at the heart of the revolution, Egypt itself has slipped back into a dark age.

"Whoever says women shouldn't go to the protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honour and manhood and come with me on January 25th", said Asmaa Mahfouz, a founding member of the April 6th Movement, in the video she uploaded on YouTube and shared on her Facebook page.

At least 20% of the protesters in the Egyptian revolution were women, according to an estimate from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. This is an unusually high percentage for mass demonstrations in Egypt where women are often concerned that they might face groping and leering.

So this time it was highly significant that so many women marched alongside men, led the chants and spent nights in Tahrir Square even before the protests were reported to be largely harassment-free. Remarkably, the Muslim Brotherhood stopped forming human chains around their women, showing the trust they put in other protesters, and women started coming with their children.

egyptw2But the night Hosni Mubarak stepped down, on February 11, some Egyptian women reported that they had been sexually harassed during the celebrations. On the same night, the chief foreign correspondent of CBS News, Lara Logan, went through a “brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers,” according to a statement from CBS.

With this incident, international attention was suddenly focused on the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt. This has long been recognised as pervasive. For the most part, it goes unpunished; policemen do not usually interfere and victims face silence as their only consolation.

According to a survey conducted by the Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) in 2008, 83% of Egyptian women had experienced some form of sexual harassment and 62% of Egyptian men admitted harassing women.

Anti-harassment initiatives have already been seen in Egypt. The movie 678, for example, underlines how mentally exhausting sexual harassment is through the portrait of three women. One of the characters, Nelly, is based on Noha Roushdy, an Egyptian woman who won the country’s first sexual harassment case in 2008. Another initiative is Harrasmap, a website enabling incidents of harassment to be reported by text message or Twitter, and then showing the locations on a digital map of Cairo.

The leading role women took in the Egyptian protests has challenged the Westernegyptw3 stereotype of Arab women as passive and submissive. Women of all types, wearing the hijab, the niqab or skinny jeans with uncovered heads, joined the protest and screamed slogans in both Arabic and English.

Young Egyptian women played a key strategic role, contributing to the image of women as true public actors in the protests. There was Asmaa Mahfouz with a video blog that revolutionised online activism by connecting her directly to her audience and helping to stir them to action. There was Sanaa El Seif, a 17 year-old student who needed no permission to create a newspaper called ‘The Voices of Tahrir’ and start selling it on the streets and publishing it online. There was Leil-Zahra Mortada, a blogger who reported the events in Cairo every day and compiled an album on Facebook called “Women of Egypt”.

Women have sat in the Egyptian parliament, the Mejilis, since 1957. In 2005 only four women were elected and, in 2009, a law was passed - with difficulty - to ensure that 64 seats would go to women in the elections of 2010. Today, women account for more than half of the students in Egyptian universities, yet they are completely absent from the committee revising the constitution.

On March 8, a demonstration in Cairo marking International Women’s Day ended with groups of men groping protesters and telling them to go home. Was the revolution a moment of grace quickly forgotten? Are things returning to business as usual? At a time when Egypt is calling for national unity, women are absent from transitional structures and see their basic political rights denied. The gender issue is key to a harmonious society like the one glimpsed for a few days on Tahrir Square. The gender revolution is overdue.

Lise Fievet Mailhebiau, Media Diversity Institute, London