A demonstration urging Egypt to give women a voice in building its future was attacked by a group of men Tuesday, delivering a stinging slap to the women who helped propel Egypt's uprising.
“We fought side by side with men during the revolution, and now we’re not represented,” said Passat Rabie, a young woman who came with friends, after men aggressively dispersed the protest. “I thought Egypt was improving, that it was becoming a better country. If it’s changing in a way that’s going to exclude women, then what’s the point? Where’s the democracy?”
Hastily organized on Facebook to coincide with International Women's Day, the protest was billed as a "Million Woman" march. But in fact, it attracted only about 200 demonstrators, mostly women but some men as well. The violent opposition they faced suggests that Egyptian women must fight their own revolution to achieve equal rights.
'Go wash clothes! This is against Islam!'
The demonstrators, who gathered in Tahrir Square – the epicenter of the revolution – had much to complain about: The military council ruling the country until new elections are held failed to appoint a single woman to the committee tasked with drafting constitutional amendments. One of the proposed constitutional amendments implies that the office of presidency is limited to men by saying that a president cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman. And the only woman in Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s new government is from Mubarak’s government.
But almost immediately, they were outnumbered and beset upon by men who gathered. Some of the men were from the protesters' encampment in the middle of the square.
Dozens of women engaged in arguments with the men, who said that women had enough rights already; that now was not the time to demand inclusion; or that Islam does not allow a woman to become president. Some of the men were polite; many were aggressive. Soon, a large group gathered in front of the protest, shouting it down with insults. A sheikh from Al Azhar was hoisted on mens’ shoulders, chanting against the women.
“Go home, go wash clothes,” yelled some of the men. “You are not married; go find a husband.” Others said, “This is against Islam.” To the men demonstrating with the women, they yelled “Shame on you!”
Suddenly, the men decided the women had been there long enough. Yelling, they rushed aggressively upon the protest, pushing violently through the rows of women. The women scattered. Eyewitnesses said they saw three women being chased by the crowd. A surge of men followed them, and Army officers fired shots into the air to make the men retreat.
The men took over the raised platform where the women had held their demonstration, as many of the women trembled in rage. During the melee, one of the attacking men groped Fatima Mansour, a college student who wore purple for International Women's Day and argued eloquently with a man who said it was unIslamic for a woman to become president, quoting the Quran back at him. Sexual harassment is a common indignity for women in Cairo, though it virtually disappeared during the first few days of the uprising. After the attack, she was disheartened, but determined to continue the fight.
She whirled and slapped him, before her colleagues held her back to keep her from getting hurt, she said. Before the attack, she had been optimistic. “We believe that we have a right to rebuild Egypt,” she said. “Women’s participation during the revolution was remarkable. We can’t ignore this and deny us a role.”
Her friend Shaza Abdel Lateef chimed in. “They can’t just send us home after the revolution,” she said. One of the criticisms they faced over and over again was that now was not the time for women to demand their rights. Ms. Lateef rejects that. “We say no, we are half the population. If we stay silent, we will continue to experience all the discrimination of the past.”
A bid to hold their ground
Those who have fought to increase women’s rights in Egypt over the past decades say it's important that women raise their voices now.
They say women must have a role and a voice in the new parliament, and in the council that will be elected by parliament to write a new constitution later this year. They want women's input in order to make sure that the new document doesn’t include the discrimination in the current constitution, but also doesn’t erase the gains they’ve made.
In recent years, Egypt has passed laws allowing women to divorce their husbands, pass their nationality on to their children, and be treated equally under tax law, among others. But Nehad Abu El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, says discrimination remains, particularly in the family status law, which “treats women as second-class citizens who need protection."
Women’s advocates fear that the truncated timeline for holding new elections will benefit already organized groups like Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, leaving women without strong voices to influence a new constitution and legislation.
But women like Ms. Komsan are also fighting for social change. In a society that tolerates violence against women, often violates their rights out of an effort to “protect” them, and often blames sexual harassment on the victims, legislative change isn’t the only obstacle.
Egypt’s revolution encouraged women to speak out, she says. But women will need to continue to fight to ensure their place as Egypt moves forward.
Yasmine Khalifa, who is completing a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the American University in Cairo, was one of the organizers of the Facebook page calling for today’s demonstration. She hopes she can help enable women’s voices to be heard in the new Egypt.
“We need to change social and cultural concepts about what women's role is to begin with. That is one of the biggest battles,” says Khalifa. “This is a long process that needs to be done, and today's event is not a beginning, it's just a continuation of the revolution.”