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Women make their power felt in Egypt's revolution

'Egyptian women are strong. We control our households and we control our lives. We are not bound by these headscarves. We have suffered the taste of teargas, but we are not afraid.'
Women take part in an anti-government protest in Tahrir square in Cairo.
Women take part in an anti-government protest in Tahrir square in Cairo.

CAIRO // When Hosni Mubarak caved in to public pressure and resigned, it was a victory not only for the pro-democracy protesters but also for Egypt's women, who were enjoying their own social revolution.

Azza Kamel, a women's activist and writer, camped out for 18 days and nights, under a tarpaulin in Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding the removal of Mr Mubarak, an autocratic leader whose government, she says, had oppressed a nation for far too long.

Ms Kamel and other women say they did not hear of a single incident of sexual harassment since the protests started on January 25.

"The revolution changed us," said Ms Kamel, 50, who left the square only for a few hours each day to collect blankets and food for her fellow protesters.

"Men were not touching women; in fact, they were saying sorry every time they bumped into a woman."

This may not sound like a lot, but in Egypt, where a study in 2008 for the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights showed that more than four out of five women had been sexually assaulted at some time, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

In the days leading up to January 25, an email was sent out to women taking part in the protests advising them to wear two layers of clothes, nothing with a zip and to double-wrap their hijabs.

This was not paranoid fear-mongering, but a practical precaution based on decades of experience. The police, who faded away as the protests took on momentum, are notorious for groping, stripping and raping women as tools of intimidation. Such endemic harassment understandably drove women into their homes and out of the political limelight. Until now that is.

"I really believe the revolution has changed us. People are acting differently towards each other," Ms Kamel said.

She pointed to the culture of fear that has pervaded Egypt for four decades as partly to blame for endemic harassment of women.

"An oppressed people look for someone else to bully and oppress. Now, this is the first time in 40 years people have tasted freedom. Men are no longer touching women."

While the demands for Mr Mubarak's removal crossed all barriers - religious, class as well as gender - it was the freedom women experienced in the square that kept them coming back, bringing friends, sisters and mothers, said Mozn Hassan, the director of the Nasra Feminist Studies Centre in Cairo.

"No one sees you as a woman here; no one sees you as a man. We are all united in our desire for democracy and freedom," she said.

Indeed, thousands of women poured into the square each day. They came on their own, with friends, colleagues, husbands and children; university students, teachers, doctors and housewives; Muslims, dressed in hijab and without, and Christians.

They took turns checking the IDs and bags of protesters, handing out food and manning the clinics, leading chants to fire up the protesters and running a steady stream of Facebook and Twitter posts.

Where in previous protests women had accounted for, at most, 10 per cent, in Tahrir Square that number stood at about 40 per cent to 50 per cent in the days leading up to Mr Mubarak's resignation. Women such as Mai Shoukoury, 30, a researcher with a think tank in Cairo, said she had never voted, and never protested before, but felt compelled to join the protests in Tahrir Square, and Doaa, 23, an economics student who, on the day after pitched battles in the square between democracy protesters and supporters of Mr Mubarak left more than 100 people dead, was back at the barricaded entrance, ad fearlessly took on the soldiers who were trying to prevent her from getting in.

So what changed?

Ms Hassan puts it down to the changing tools of civil protest.

The internet initially provided women with a safe platform on which to campaign, and that then segued into their physical participation, she said.

Not only were women posting blogs and tweets, but they confidently led crowds of men in protest chants, prayed alongside men, instead of behind them, and spent the night sleeping under tents with men they might only have just met.

Ms Hassan said that, for years, state media had portrayed women as weak and vulnerable, which had caused ruptures in society. "For years the media and government have tried to keep men and women apart, to drive a wedge between us.

"But in the square, you had people from different classes, both men and women, mixing, talking and debating. They [men] were seeing that women are strong, that they can look after themselves.

"They were seeing women work hard for the revolution, leading protests, and their response [not groping] is their way of saying, 'I respect you'."

Ask any woman in the square why she protested, however, and she will not say for women's rights. Most Egyptian women think they have all the gender equality they need.

"Egyptian women are strong. We control our households and we control our lives. Like Lebanon, we are not bound by these headscarves," says Riham Muntaz, 25, an English teacher at a private school, dressed in a sky-blue hijab and dark sunglasses.

"We have suffered the taste of teargas, but we are not afraid. The women who are afraid to leave the house, even they see us and gain courage."

What Ms Muntaz wants is a better life. Like many of her fellow protesters, male and female, she struggles to make ends meet.

"I get paid 400 [Egyptian] pounds a month," she says. "I have no health insurance, if I need an operation I have to pay for it myself. I have no contract, no job security. We want a better life for us and for our children. We deserve a better life."

foreigndesk@thenational.ae

Updated: February 14, 2011 04:00 AM

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