From Tahrir square to my kitchen

Despite the vibrancy of mobilization in Egypt after Mubarak, Hania Sholkamy’s account of the 8th of March demonstration in Tahrir square to mark International Women's day bears witness to the persistent resistance to women’s political participation

On the 8th of March 2011, there were many demonstrations in downtown Cairo. Just off Tahrir square there were tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding equality for Christians in Egypt and protesting against the events that took place in Atfeeh, a small village to the east of Cairo, which led to a murder and the burning of the village church. Copts and Muslims marched to demand a formal apology, a guarantee of religious freedom, and the return of the land where the church stood which had been confiscated by the Muslims who took part in this village battle.

Meanwhile thousands of salafis (puritanical literalist Islamicists) blockaded the Prime Minister’s office demanding the return and release of a Coptic woman who allegedly converted to Islam and was then returned by the police to the Church, and who has been kept in a monastery for almost a year to re-convert her to Christianity.

Around the corner, were hundreds of students demanding the resignation of the president of Fayoum University and chanting their demands outside the National Academy of Sciences on Kasrel-Aini street. Further up the street and to the left were tens of workers at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel demanding changes to their working conditions.

But despite this effervescence of protest and the openness with which Cairo has been blessed since the 11th of February when Hosny Mubarak resigned, the demonstrations by women commemorating the 8th of March, standing peacefully in Tahrir square, is the only demonstration that was attacked, harassed, ridiculed, shouted down and ultimately chased out of the square. No other demonstrators were heckled, told that their demands are unjustified, unnecessary, a threat to the gains of the revolution, out of time, out of place and/or the product of a ‘foreign agenda’! No other demonstrators were told to ‘go back home and to the kitchen”! No others were heckled for how they looked and what they were wearing.

Typically, the blogs and e-groups of women who participated in this eye-opening fiasco launched a tirade of self blame. “It is our fault, we planned it badly, we were too few, our demands were not well thought out, some of us were out of line, we should not have lost our tempers” are some of the soul searching comments posted online. These posts are from groups of researchers and activists who supported, but did not initiate, the process that began on the 25th of January leading to the toppling of a regime and the birth of a chaotic but hopeful nation. They are women and men who have decided to become political agents and engaged citizens shaping a better future. So they congregated on March 8th with modest placards and plain A4 and A3 paper with demands for a fair constitution, for an end to sexual harassment, for the inclusion women in decision-making structures, for equity, dignity and respect. One demand on some of these bits of paper was for the right of a woman to become president. Another had a badly written but well intentioned demand to see women not as reproductive bodies but as equal citizens. A call had gone out to encourage each demonstrator to voice her or his demands, whatever they might be, as long they expressed an agenda for gender equity and were not about private demands.

When we congregated at around 3.00pm we sensed a brewing resentment amongst hundreds of almost all male anti-protest protestors. “Go home and make Mahshy (stuffed vegetables)! ” I was told. The chanting of hundreds standing in the street blocking most of the traffic in the square who were facing us as we stood quietly on the pavement causing no disruption or noise was shocking to those who thought that Egypt was now a free country. In unison they were saying “batil” (illegitimate) to the demands for gender equity and “‘awra” (ignominy) to women standing with their demands. "Back to the kitchen" and “off the square” were other chants. One elderly gentleman stood in the middle of those on the pavement and said that the posters they held were an offence to the good women who are ‘mothers of the martyrs’ and who deserve respect and rights, not like these women who deserve nothing. Then young men fired up by the imagery he was invoking started snatching our bits of paper and tearing them up then throwing them at the quite, baffled, dejected, astounded men and women.

The mistake was that some women stepped down from the pavement and entered into a shouting match with this sea of angry men. There were tens of these heated discussions. There were also some calmer conversations on the side of the clearly defined frontline between those on the pavement and those in the street. I talked to a man who resents the idea of equal pay for equal work. He wanted to talk me out of support for the current personal status laws as they give women too many rights! I mention this not to ridicule him, but on the contrary to thank him for trying to have an exchange of views. The rest were jeering, asking some women next to me to care for their kids at home and not make fools of themselves in the square. One woman came up to a group of us and explained that ‘now is not the time for these silly demands as this will put the revolution at risk”. “Now is not the time….” was what some said with regret , and many others shouted in anger!

This morning I saw a video of the protests on the website of el-Shorouk newspaper. As I scrolled down the page I found 37 comments, (and this at 9.15 in the morning!) - all derogatory. Most of them were beseeching God to save Egypt from these women and their unfounded and illegitimate demands. One comment said “what women?! I see no women on this video!” implying that the demonstrators lacked a feminine appearance or manner.

I imagine that you, reader, now have a feel for what happened on March the 8th and continues to happen to any political action undertaken by feminists and equity advocates in Egypt.

Women and men planned and sustained the protest for democracy in Egypt. The movement has been gender inclusive. Women encouraged internet users to take to the streets, women organized supply lines, funds, medication, blankets, tweets, food, and security at check points. There were veiled, face veiled, non- veiled, women alone, with children, very young and elderly all standing in solidarity together and with their friends and families for days and nights in the square.

Tahrir has since become a place of near mythical power. Visited by Egyptians every Friday since the fall of Mubarak, it remains the site of protest and the geography shaping the emerging political will of the people. Visiting dignitaries and heads of state come to Tahrir (not on Friday) to have their pictures taken and to show their solidarity with the values that this space now represents. The Valhalla that witnessed the death of our martyrs, is also the utopia that the living enjoyed as they chanted, sang and stood in defiance of a dictator. But the square yesterday was witness to the flight of scores of harassed women as their opponents ran them off the square and into side streets.

So how do we reconcile the symbolism of the square with its current chaos? How do we sustain justice and gender rights? How do we support the values of the revolution in the face of the neglect or animosity of revolutionaries?

There is a fear that women could become a fifth column or a fracture in an edifice that is still under construction. Should women who want to participate, celebrate, have voice and presence wait until those who are older, more 'serious', or are men, decide our fates and futures? Why were they ridiculed and attacked on the 8th of March? Why was their demonstration singled out from among five others taking place at the same time and in the same neighbourhood for attack and dispersal? These are questions that need an honest answer.

Commentators and activists are suspicious about the current unrest and the proliferation of crime and insecurity. They say that this is the counter revolution and a plan to discredit the new Egyptian polity and society. There may be some truth in this view, but in the mean time men and women are worried, struggling to adapt to our world of insecurity, unable to see through an increasingly non-transparent political process, and gasping to maintain their optimism if they have not already lost it.

Under the influence of this optimism, and immersed in internet fuelled naiveté, hundreds of women and men sought to go to the square and actually say what they had not dared speak in the past, demanding civil rights and equal citizenship rights. Evidently the space of protest is not a neutral one when it comes to questions of gender equality. But there are more important lessons with which we need to contend.

The first is that democracy may not deliver equal rights for women. Democracy can become a tyranny if not tempered by a commitment to basic principles and freedoms. Despite the rebirth of politics and participation, there is no guarantee that the political process will be equitable. It has been easy to get millions to agree to jettison Mubarak. It will be hard to get them to agree on what comes next. Whatever the politics of our future governments and legislatures may be, some basic principles of rights and freedoms have to be clearly stated and not left to the vagaries of elections. All free nations have imposed limits on the ability of people to harm or undermine their compatriots. This is a position we need to internalise and cement into our national psyche.

The second lesson is that women should focus on demanding democratic processes that enable them to have voice and realise achievements. We should perhaps have demonstrated to dissolve the national machinery known as the National Council for Women and create a new body consisting of civil society organizations with an elected board that is accountable to its constituents. We should insist on quotas for women within every new and old political party so as to ensure that all policies are gender equitable. We should lobby for participatory policy councils that oversee the services we require from the state. These local councils could consult their citizens when planning health, social protection, education, policing and housing policy through a legally binding process. Perhaps women can realize citizenship-focused democracy by demanding the mechanisms that deliver justice to all.

The Egyptian protests have discredited formal politics and have implications for women’s political empowerment. There are no avenues to women’s political empowerment that do not traverse the landscape of politics as a whole. Quotas in a rigged election, access to high office in the absence of transparency and accountability, local council representation without good governance, or voice without freedom do not deliver gender justice. So we should mull over the significance of the 8th of March stand-off, and treat it as a premonition of things to come if we do not reconsider the strategies that a woman’s movement needs to adopt to wade into the democratic process.

Meanwhile, we must not lose hope or humour and since my friends say I am a good cook, I shall now go home to my kitchen and my kids and make a mean mahshy (stuffed vegetables) that my detractors would die for.