Best of 2011: Thousands of men and no groping


Women protesters in EgyptA striking aspect of the Egyptian revolution which led to the resignation of its president Hosni Mubarak on Friday 11 February was the participation of youth and women.

Although the cameras focused, especially in the early days, primarily on the men standing up for their rights in Tahrir Square, plenty of women also joined the crowds.

Women, young and old, were on the frontlines, organising security and braving tear gas and gunfire as they called for Mubarak's unseating. Women volunteers monitored the entrance to the Square, checking identification and searching bags to make sure no one brought in weapons. Women were in the Square when men on camels and horseback charged into the crowd beating them with whips.

Women doctors cared for the wounded and bleeding people who were taken to a makeshift hospital in a nearby mosque, after clashes broke out between pro-Mubarak and pro-democracy supporters.

And as women joined men in the square and on the streets, calling for an end to the Mubarak regime, they brought their children, including young girls. Some even camped out in the cold.

These women joined a long history of women who struggled for recognition of their human rights and for freedom in Egypt. They included women such as Malak Hifni Nassef (1886–1918), an Islamic modernist reformer, and Nabaweya Moussa (1886–1951), a pioneer of women's education in Egypt.

Then there was Hoda Sharawi (1879–1947), a writer and political activist who helped lead the first women's street demonstration during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. She became an icon of the Egyptian women's liberation movement.

As the West continued to occupy and exploit Egypt, and an Islamist backlash occurred from the 1930s, most of the gains made by these women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were obstructed and almost vanished. 

It was fitting that Nawal el-Saadawi, Egyptian psychiatrist, activist and former director general of public health education, was there to celebrate Mubarak's departure. She spent time in prison for opposing the Anwar al-Sadat regime. In 1982 she founded the Arab Women's Solidarity Association to promote women's participation in social, economic, cultural and political life. It was later banned by Mubarak.

Ruheya, a 21-year-old university student who had travelled from the town of Sharqeya, 160 km north of Cairo said, 'There are Christian girls here, there are girls with their hair uncovered. We're all volunteers. We're all Egyptians, whether we're Christians or Muslims, whether we're religious or not, we're all good people. We're all sacrificing for our country.'

When some Christian women were asked about Western fears concerning the Muslim Brotherhood and whether a democratic Egypt might end up a more oppressive country, they countered: 'If there is a democracy, we will not allow our rights to be taken away from us. We do not worry about the Muslim Brotherhood. If they do not perform then they will not get votes the next time.'

The women say that their presence has earned them unaccustomed respect from Egyptian men. Sexual harassment has long been a major headache for women. In a 2008 study, 86 per cent of women said they had experienced harassment on Egypt's streets.

But in the square, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, as one woman described it, 'men apologised if they so much as bumped into you'. 'Thousands of Men and No Groping!' read the heading on one website which described Egypt's protests as a safe space for women. Another woman commented, 'It's because we're all so focused on one goal, we're a family here.'

To ensure that the contribution made by women will not be overlooked, Leil-Zahra Mortada has placed a collection of photos of women in the Egypt protests on her website. She calls it a 'homage to all those women out there fighting, and whose voices and faces are hidden from the public eye!'

As the people of Egypt struggle to build a new democratic order of peace and economic wellbeing, it is essential that women do not lose the visibility and the voice which they reclaimed in the 18 days of revolution. They must be full and active participants in the reforms to come.

Patricia MadiganDominican Sister Trish Madigan lived near Tahrir Square while she was a Research Fellow at the American University of Cairo in 2006. She has recently published Women and Fundamentalism in Islam and Catholicism: Negotiating Modernity in a Globalized World (Peter Lang Publishers). 

Topic tags: Egypt, Protests, women, Tahrir Square, Hosni Mubarak, Malak Hifni Nassef, Nabaweya Moussa, Hoda Sharawi



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Existing comments

This contrasts with accounts of a French journalist sexually assaulted by young men at the protest in Tahrir Square in November. See for example

Geoff Vivian | 06 January 2012  

There is an interview with American 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan about her rape by a mob of men in a Cairo Crowd, moments after Mubarak resigned.She said she was finally saved when they stumbled into a group of Egyptian women.

Geoff Vivian | 06 January 2012  

The inevitable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood will see Egyptian women thrust back into a medieval existence. It is foolish to think that the Muslim Brotherhood will respect democracy. The will impose Sharia, by brute force if necessary.

patrick james | 11 January 2012  

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