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February 8, 2011 12:21 pm

A War with Roses: Women of the Protest in Cairo

avatar by Maxine Dovere

Egyptian women at Cairo Bazaar. Photo: Ed Yourdon.

“The call for democracy not only crossed gender lines, it is also changing street conduct,” noted Moz’n Hassan Director of the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies’. “Women have been able to protest freely without men to protect them and without confronting the usual harassment rampant on Cairo’s streets.”

It is a political protest like none other in Egyptian history.  The streets of Cairo are angry, but, for the most part, generally non aggressive.  The behavior of the military appears generally benign.  Violence has been seen, significantly from uniformed police and pro government “plain clothes” security forces.  Protests have turned violent, but even then, only intermittently.

The Egyptian protest began on January 25.  Since soon after the uprising began, details regarding the participation of women have increased daily.  Speaking from America, Egyptian Journalist Mona Eltahawy says the role of women in Egypt’s uprising is central.  In fact, the beginning of the huge anti-government demonstrations may have been the words of 26 year old Asmaa Mahfouz, speaking to her countrymen and women on facebook: “Don’t be afraid of the government; we need to fight for our country.”

Dissatisfaction with the Mubarak government has long been a factor in Egyptian politics.   Although opposition to the Mubarak regime has been increasing for years, nothing gave voice to the Egyptian people as did this plea of a single young woman whose orderly, yet deeply emotional appeal to the men and women of Egypt to come to fight for their rights and democracy.  Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz, who, declared in a facebook video that went “viral,” called directly upon all who seek freedom to come to Tahrir Square.

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Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians responded with their support and their presence. Among them, an unprecedented number of women, young and old, who have become a vibrant, active part of the political explosion now rocking Cairo. Both in social media and in the actual demonstrations, the visibility of women is sticking.  Woman activists are not only in Tahrir Square in Cairo, they are involved in democracy rallies throughout Egypt.

Young women, their mothers and their mentors – inheritors of a tradition of, albeit less visible, involvement – are challenging and changing civil society in Egypt. The participation of women in modern Egyptian political life has a long history: women were involved in the revolution of 1919; in 1923, Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’rawi changed social mores when she removed her face veil in a Cairo train station.  In the protests of 2011, women are active participants, advising one another, supporting one another. Though Egyptian women have taken part in rallies and demonstrations throughout the Mubarak regime, they have been specifically targeted by government forces.  Journalist Eltahawy notes that, while covering a 2005 trial, she was inappropriately touched by a police officer. “Many women have experienced much more horrendous attacks,” she says. “It was very saddening, but also gratifying that these young women were prepared. They would say things like wear two layers of clothes so that if they rip off the first, you’re still dressed. No zippers. Carry a can of mace. If you wear a headscarf, make sure you tie it this way and not that way and wear two. … They (women) were determined because what the purpose of these assaults and targeting women, obviously, is to shame these women and to terrorize them…These young women will not be scared away. We are standing up for our rights to be active and equal members of Egyptian society, which, again, gives me hope looking forward.”

Hosni Mubarak, has been in power for 30 years.  He is the only leader the majority of Egyptians have ever known. The protestors say “We are telling him, we want freedom and democracy. Egyptians have now understood their power and the power of the people to go out on the street and say no to a dictator. So I have no doubt whatsoever that Egyptian men and women will not allow for one form of repressive regime to be replaced with another.”

When asked “Will women play a significant role in Egypt after Mubarak?” Eltahawy initiated her list naming Asmaa Mahfouz as well as Israa Abdel Fattah, a television personality, human rights activist. She also mentioned physician Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla, and the leaders of the Nazra, (“Vision”) Center, Moz’n Hassan and Fatma Emam, suggesting legislators or public intellectuals who might play a significant role in the future.

“Fear has left Cairo,” says Mona El Naggar, of the New York Times bureau in Cairo.  The Exodus was lead by 26 year old Asmaa Mahfouz who’s technologically enhanced clarion call – “As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope” – rallied the people of Egypt.

Mahfouz appealed to the people of Egypt in a simple, straightforward on line video, ending the sequence holding a hand written sign protesting Mubarak’s regime.  By the time the government responded, virtually shutting down the internet throughout the country, the message was out.  The face of protest was the visage of a young woman.

“Do not be afraid,” she said.

Acknowledging that the expectations were for women in Egyptian society had been to be subdued and submissive, Mahfouz has said, on camera, “I felt that doing this video may be too big a step for me, but then I thought: For how much longer will I continue to be afraid and hesitant? I had to do something.” Her call to take to the streets was a significant factor in rallying participation in Egypt’s “National Day of Rage,” on January 25.

Ms. Mahfouz is no stranger to politics or activism.  She is a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, charged with reaching the “silent majority.” Said April 6 co-founder Amr Ezz, “she got in front of the camera and said what she wanted with a daring and enthusiastic attitude that encouraged people.” Her video motivated men and women. “The fact that a woman was able to do this made the men feel challenged, and they wanted to do the same.” Hundreds of thousands have joined, braving government police and what has proven to be a sympathetic military.

Female participation in the protests is at an equal standing – just like male participation – and female demonstrators are not shying away from marching despite the tear gas,” noted Amr Hamzawy, a research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center who has spent most of the last week in central Cairo.  “It’s very impressive,” he said. “It’s not about male and female, it’s about everyone.”

Reports of individual involvement have become more widely reported: Mariam Soliman, a 28-year-old school counselor, led a group of men and women down a street, yelling “Down, down with Mubarak!”  Ms. Soliman said she no longer delegated participation to any man. “At least I’ll die defending my rights,” she said. “I am not socialist, I am not a liberal, I am not an Islamist. I am an Egyptian woman, a regular woman rejecting injustice and corruption in my country. Women have to go down and participate and demand their rights.”

“Everyone used to say there is no hope, that no one will turn up on the street, that the people are passive,” Ms. Mahfouz said in a recent interview with the International Herald Tribune. “But the barrier of fear was broken!”

A graduate of the business management school of the American University in Cairo, Asmaa Mahfouz was able to mobilize the million that turned up in Cairo and the thousands in other cities. She and her family were subjected to harassment by Egyptian security forces. When the new government was announced by Hosni Mubarak last week, they requested to meet with her, a request she declined. Asmaa Mahfouz has no interest in being a martyr.  “Anyone who is worried about me or thinks that I am mentally ill should come in order to protect me. If anyone thinks I might set fire to myself – I have no such intention.”

In the course of researching this article, the Algemeiner received a statement in Arabic, from an internationally known leader of the women’s movement in Egypt, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi.  Her words are poignant. “All the Egyptian people are united as one in the revolution of the people. All came together to protest – youth, men and woman, all united as Egyptians.”   She called for the unity of the people, saying “each Egyptian is protected by all Egyptians from the corruptions of the government that fostered chaos in the name of security, dictatorship in the name of democracy, and poverty and unemployment under the guise of development and prosperity.”

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