03.08.11

Egypt's Women Take to the Streets

About a thousand women protested in Cairo's Tahrir Square Tuesday, battling hecklers from opposition to get fair representation in the new constitution. Ursula Lindsey on their courageous fight. Plus, secret Egypt security files exposed and more reports from Women in the World.

A protest in Cairo Tuesday to celebrate International Women’s Day and push for women’s rights was marred by arguments and violence.

Protesters were attacked and driven out of the square, accused of being “foreigners” (quite a few foreign women and journalists were present), and had their flyers and posters torn up.

There was tension from the beginning, with throngs of male hecklers outnumbering the hundreds of female protesters.

“A man tried to rule us and failed—will we let a woman?” a middle-aged man yelled at the crowd of Egyptian women holding banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The men around him burst out laughing.

Egyptian women had called for a demonstration insisting that their demands and rights be taken into greater consideration by the military currently running the country.

The amendment’s wording makes it clear that a woman running for president isn’t even envisaged.

“Our first goal is just to make society here aware that there is an International Women’s Day,” said Mona Eddin, a women’s rights activist. “We also want to send a message to the government that they need to implement policies of equality between men and women. After a revolution, everything should change.”

Egyptian women took to the streets in unprecedented numbers during the three weeks of protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Many were exhilarated and inspired by the experience. But now, they say, they’re being denied a role in building the country’s future.

The all-male legal committee that was convened to amend the country’s constitution has drafted an amendment that prohibits a man with a foreign wife from running for president. The amendment’s wording makes it clear that a woman running for president isn’t even envisaged.

Hassan El Zughby, a 48-year-old accountant, was horrified by the protesters’ demand that women be allowed to run for the presidency. “All Egyptians will reject this completely,” he said. “Women have a role, and men have a role. We’re used to men ruling. Who rules in my house? My father. And who rules in my family? I do.”

El Zughby was standing among the female protesters although he clearly didn’t support their cause. In fact, there were more men than women present, and most of them expressed either indignation or amusement at the women’s demands.

Many said now just “isn’t the time” for women to demonstrate for their rights. “Everyone can’t come out with their demands now,” said Ismail Hassan, a 21-year-old student who came to see what the protest was about with several friends.

Women’s rights activists have a lot to contend with to get their voices heard right now. Egypt is exploding with protests, sit-ins and strikes these days. In a 15-minute radius from the women’s protest in downtown Cairo there was a protest in front of the state TV and Radio building; a sit-in by homeless families demanding affordable housing; a demonstration by Salafi Islamists near parliament; another by employees of the Institute of Scientific Research and Technology calling for the resignation of an official; and the lingering “occupation” of Tahrir Square’s central grassy esplanade.

Hassan and his friends argued that the barrage of demonstrations were stalling the Egyptian economy, and that women should wait.

But some men supported the protesters. Magdy Abdel-Fattah, a 35-year-old researcher, had come to show his support. “Is there any difference, besides sex, between men and women, as human beings?” he asked Hassan and his friends. “The revolution can’t search for social justice and democracy without acknowledging that men and women are equal,” Abdel-Fattah argued. “The former government made it a policy to discriminate between men and women.”

Vast numbers of Egyptian women pursue university educations and play an active role in society. But many Egyptian women complain of constant sexual harassment on the streets of Egyptian cities.

And gender roles here remain conservative, with women expected to focus on getting married and raising a family. El Zughby, the middle-aged accountant, pointed to the protesters’ flyer and a demand that “women’s reproductive role not be placed above her other personal and public roles.”

“They don’t want women to have children!” he told another man, incredulously. “They want a woman to put work above having kids!”

Women remain woefully absent from positions of power, whether in government or business. Dania Gharaibeh, another women’s rights activist, stood near El Zughby, rolling her eyes at his remarks. She held a poster that emphasized women’s lack of political representation. It noted that there are no women on the legal committee re-writing the constitution; no women on the so-called Council of Elders, an informal advisory board of public figures; and only one woman in the new cabinet. Even among opposition groups, women rarely occupy leadership positions.

“We want to play a role in this time of change,” said Gharaibeh. The revolution has increased women’s “political consciousness,” she argued, and “the feminist movement is becoming more encompassing, it has more followers.”

Many of the protesters’ male critics invoked religion saying Islam itself decrees that men and women are different, and that men should be responsible for, and rule over, women. At one point, a crowd of male counterprotesters circled a women in a niqab (the full, black veil that covers everything but a woman’s eyes and is worn by Islamic fundamentalists here) chanting,  “This is an Egyptian woman!”

Some women said that they welcomed the chance to make their case to a skeptical male public.

On the edge of the crowd, university professor Malak Rushdi was having an earnest debate with Suleiman Shafei, a young banker who said he dropped by the protest on his way home from work and didn’t even know there was such a thing as International Women’s Day. “At least it’s opening a debate,” said Rushdi. “I’m happy people are expressing themselves. It’s a way for people to get to know each other. And it will continue.”

But toward the end of the afternoon, that debate degenerated into violence.

“Suddenly we heard people raising their voices and women screaming. I didn’t see exactly what happened because we had to run,” says Engy Ghozlan, another young activist.

“One woman was attacked,” says journalist Pakinam Amer. “And after that we heard gunfire shots. People started targeting women. They were being very hostile, very aggressive. They were systematically trying to get us out of Tahrir.”

“I was very, very disappointed,” says Moushira Khattab, a doctor and former secretary general of National Council for Women and Children who arrived in Tahrir Square after the protest had been dispersed. “Women were denied the right to express themselves on International Women’s Day.

“We have to find out who did this and why it happened,” says Khattab. “We can’t let this go. Men and women fought together during the January 25 Revolution. Women have great expectations and rights that need to be fulfilled. We still have a long way to go.”

Ursula Lindsey is a Cairo-based reporter and writer.