New Internationalist

All Egyptians are equal, but some are more equal than others

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With attempts to mark International Women’s Day thwarted by angry men, Glen Johnson discovers that Egypt’s uprising has yet to improve the situation of its women.

Photo by David Berkowitz under a CC Licence
Portraits of Egypt's women... Photo by David Berkowitz under a CC Licence

The posters were torn to shreds, laying scattered and in piles at the south end of Midan Tahrir, the epicentre of Egypt’s anti-government protests that began on 25 January.

Some of the posters had giant X marks scrawled across them; others had been covered in writing reading: ‘Not now.’

All were covered by the marks of dirty shoes, as hundreds of reactionary Egyptian men trampled the posters underfoot.

The posters were simple in their few demands. Demands aired as part of International Women’s Day, a day intended to celebrate women’s achievements and aiming to promote gender equality.

A revolution should not simply mean the overthrow of a political system, which has not yet happened in Egypt. A real revolution should entail widespread social reform

The posters called for harsher punishments against sexual harassment – a constant barrage of slurs and sexual innuendo are directed against women in Egypt every day. They called for fairer representation in parliament and for a woman to stand for Egypt’s presidency. In short, the posters called for acknowledgment of women’s rights. The posters called for equality.

Arriving in Midan Tahrir just before nightfall, I saw groups of women scattered around the square in small numbers, surrounded by at least 500 men, possibly more.

I saw a group of around 150 men driving forward, as a lone women, protected by a handful of relatives and friends, yelled at the men, who were working themselves into a frenzy. The woman, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, climbed over a barrier and began running across the grass outside the Mogamma building in Midan Tahrir. She was pursued by a mob of men who were fought back by a handful of people desperately attempting to protect her.

Photo by: Tinou Bao under a CC Licence
Photo by: Tinou Bao under a CC Licence

Eventually, when the woman’s safety was seriously threatened, two soldiers intervened with truncheons, beating back the mob. The soldiers then left and the woman fled across the street. I saw a young Western woman running across the street, east of Tahrir, holding her head, a group of men stalking away behind her.

I watched as three women stood in Tahrir in front of another group of men, simply holding their posters, completely surrounded by the mob. One man, Yousef, dressed in a well-cut suit and wearing Oakley sun-glasses, was yelling at the three women. ‘Not now!’ he chanted, in chorus with the rest of the men. Yousef explained, with a slight American accent, that Egyptians could not focus on the grievances of one group of people.

‘It is about all Egypt now. We have to stand together. No one group should act alone. We have other goals first. Later they can talk about what they want.’

His sentiments were repeated again and again by others.

An engineer called Abdul-Wahab told me that foreigners were making trouble, forcing women they were having sex with to come out and protest.

What revolution?

Since January, waves of protest have swept across Egypt. From Coptic Christians demanding an end to the discrimination they face, to, importantly, widespread labour unrest – in which workers have been demanding an end to workplace corruption and better salaries. These labour protests are a daily occurrence across all of Egypt and are a direct result of the regime’s neoliberal policies, which undercut workers’ rights. Tens of thousands of workers have been airing their demands, through sit-ins, walk-outs and street protests.

Not once have these protests been shouted down by mobs of men.

Indeed, Abddul-Wahab had been out protesting for workers’ rights in Cairo. Why then the difference for women demanding rights or simply airing their grievances?

‘This is not the time,’ Abdul-Wahab said.

A group of female journalists from a local magazine had prepared banners earlier in the day. Some of them wept as a group of men forced them out of Midan Tahrir. One man, his eye covered in a bandage from an injury sustained during the anti-government protests, was screaming at the young women.

A young child repeatedly yelled ‘Yalla’ (‘hurry up’, or ‘go’) at them.

Much speculation has focused on whether Egypt has really been through a revolution or not. Most Egyptians will say that they have. But a revolution should not simply mean the overthrow of a political system, which has not yet happened in Egypt. A real revolution should entail widespread social reform, or at the very least give rise to an environment in which problems endemic upon a society are verbalized and addressed.

Many women reported an end to sexual harassment during the 18 days of Egyptian protest in Tahrir Square. However, as soon as Hosni Mubarak stood down, harassment started again

In the 2010 World Gender Gap Report, Egypt was ranked 125th out of 134 countries. It performed worst regarding the political empowerment of women. Harassment of women is a constant in the country. Marital rape is widespread. Along with the rest of the Middle East, sexual abuse of children within the wider family is remarkably high, but remains largely unreported.

More than 80 per cent of women are circumcised, though the government has attempted to stamp out the practice, for which there is no religious justification – it is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but is referred to in the Hadiths.

Watching the abhorrent display by Egyptian reactionaries to the women in Midan Tahrir took some by surprise. Ahmed, a translator and Arabic teacher, said that he was ‘shocked’ by the events: ‘After what we went through together here, I can’t believe I am seeing this,’ he said.

Photo by: David Dennis under a CC Licence
Photo by: David Dennis under a CC Licence

Indeed, many women reported an end to sexual harassment during the 18 days of Egyptian protest in Tahrir Square. However, as soon as Hosni Mubarak stood down, harassment started again. A point which Egyptian women have reiterated time and again. The night of Mubarak’s resignation, there were numerous cases of sexual assault, most involving groping and verbal slurs.

The demands made by the women in Midan Tahrir on International Women’s Day were legitimate, and most importantly, essential for Egypt to progress. Demanding equality cuts deep. Actually listening to these demands cuts much deeper.

Can Egypt adapt and change?

The problems associated with Middle Eastern patriarchy, corruption, autocracy and discrimination can all be addressed, challenged and eventually changed through a fundamental acceptance of equal rights.

‘I did not expect such hatred, not after we stood together in Midan Tahrir. Some men told us that the closest we would ever get to a president is if we gave birth to one'

The scenes in Midan Tahrir on International Women’s Day have called into question the ability of Egypt to adapt and change. Those who failed to protect the female protesters – indeed those who failed to join the protest – are just as accountable as the reactionaries whose backwardness was on display.

For Farida, an editor at a local magazine, who was shouted out of Midan Tahrir, her day had been spent in optimism.

‘It was going to be like a school trip. We made our funny signs and wanted to be there to stand up for women. I did not expect such hatred, not after we stood together in Midan Tahrir. Some men told us that the closest we would ever get to a president is if we gave birth to one. There were so many men we couldn’t even see the women. They got so aggressive with us [and were saying]: “What the hell are you doing here, you should go home.” They started pushing women, some women got kicked, had their cameras taken. They were saying “no” to us. Couldn’t they have given us a couple of hours? What is the problem? In the future I hoped things would get better. After today, that’s bullshit.’

Once again, the Egyptian military failed in its duty to protest legitimate protesters from attacks. Soldiers argued that they could only follow orders and could not be seen to be taking sides: They would lose legitimacy, if they intervened.

Leaving Tahrir, I watched as a man used his foot to drag two pieces of torn poster together. He stood, with another man, reading through the list of women’s demands. A smirk and look of puzzlement spread across his face.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist based in Cairo.

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