A focus on the spaces where women asserted their public presence in the Egyptian revolution reveals a great deal about how changes in power relations between women and men can contribute to the transformatory potential of the revolution, says Nadia Taher.
“We are not women, we are Egyptians”. That is what a young woman in Tahrir Square said to me on 25 January 2012, celebrating a year of the Revolution, when I enquired about the group of women she was with.
Just over a year on, people are asking the insistent question – ‘has anything changed’? The first 18 days of the revolution, ending with the ousting of Mubarak, and what followed, has changed masses of Egyptians in a way that no counter-revolution can destroy. Millions of Egyptian women and men have defined and re-defined who they are and what they want for the future of Egypt.
Over this period women’s identities - as Egyptians, as women and as citizens - emerged at particular points in time and in particular spaces, literally and figuratively, producing different dynamics, outcomes and reactions. Whether these identities were strategically and selectively deployed is open to question. Did this extraordinary space of the revolution also allow men to re-define their masculinities? A selection of moments and episodes reflecting shifting identities and spaces of protest and representation might help to shed some light on the transformational potential and limitations of the revolution - mainly seen through the lens of events unfolding on Tahrir Square and its surroundings.
Women as citizens: claiming spaces of protest in Tahrir Square
“Men, women, young, old, Muslim and Christian of all classes participated in this revolution.” Variations of this phrase were repeated everywhere. While at one level most people were aware of and were celebrating this diversity, the main emphasis was on the common identity of people in the square and the unity of their demands. Women and men organised and led the protests, guarded the entrances to the Square, gave speeches, and doctors of both sexes attended to the injured in makeshift clinics. “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” said Mozn Hassan (as quoted in The National, 14th February 2011).
While national identity was undoubtedly at the forefront, women’s and men’s identities and the relations between and among them was also shifting. Was Tahrir really ‘not a gendered space’, as some academics and journalists claimed? "Something changed in the dynamics between men and women in Tahrir” said Salma El Tarzi (as quoted by Al Jazeera), “...The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt,”.
Both women and men, in their similar but also different ways, were invigorated by their right to occupy this space of protest, exercising their full citizenship in an inclusive way. Some men in the Square seemed to express new forms of masculinities that did not appear to derive from unequal power relations with women. Traditional gender divisions of labour seemed to melt away in the Square. Women were respected as leaders and as spokespersons whilst men contributed equally to the provision of food and water and in cleaning up the streets. Was this a seed for more lasting change at all levels of power relations, including gender relations? Can the transfomatory potential of the revolution be fully realized without meeting this challenge?
Women as women: same spaces, different demands?
Just less than a month after the euphoria created by the new dynamics in the Square and the ousting of Mubarak, a celebration of International Women’s Day (8th March 2011), was planned to take place in Tahrir. What ensued was the first wake-up call that perhaps what had been a ‘safe’ space for women as revolutionaries was not such a safe space for women when they demonstrated to assert their rights as women.
Based on the experience of previous mass demonstrations, some feminist activists expected that they could gather a million demonstrators in Tahrir Square to celebrate Women’s Day. The numbers who answered the call were disappointingly small (around 300) and they were mostly middle-aged, middle class women. They lined the sidewalks directly across from the Square, holding up signs and banners asking for equality and a say in the ongoing constitutional amendments. A number of men seemed to be provoked by what they saw and proceeded to approach groups of men in the Square with the apparent intention of inciting anger.
They gathered around the women and heckled them, shouting abuse, and verbally and sexually attacking them. They were told “.... [your] 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’! ..... "go back home and to the kitchen”!
A few men who were part of the women’s movement, tried to defend the women and were attacked and ridiculed by the opposing groups who chanted, “shame on you,” and “you are not men,” among several other derogatory remarks.
In the face of these reactions, it is important to remember that calls for women’s emancipation in Egypt has a long history dating back to the 19th century.
Despite the significance of the 8th March 2011 incident, there was little discussion of it beyond feminist circles. A number of commentators made the argument that ‘this is not the time’, a familiar refrain heard in earlier liberation struggles whenever demands for women rights were made. The other echo from history is ‘if not now then when?’
Women as Egyptians: spaces of danger
Women were not only present in the Square during the day. Many of them, along with men, never left the Square and slept in tents during the first days of the revolution. While, in Egypt, it is highly unusual for women to spend a night outside their homes let alone in public spaces, the revolutionary spirit of the moment meant that the tents in Tahrir Square were considered ‘safe’ spaces for women.
On the night following Women’s Day, another attack occurred that was an even more blatant violation of human rights than that experienced by women on the 8th March demonstration. In the middle of the night the military police violently raided tents in Tahrir Square and arrested dozens of women and men.
Those arrested ended up in an army detention centre and both women and men were allegedly beaten and tortured (using electrical rods). The 18 women detained were asked whether they were married or never married. The seven unmarried women, after being beaten and threatened with prostitution charges, were forced to take virginity tests (since women in Egypt are expected to be virgins until they marry).
One of the women who endured this outrage, took her case to court (joined recently by two others). She announced “they want to break us and they will not succeed”. After an initial denial by the Military Authorities that any of this had taken place, one of the generals dismissively spoke of the women saying ““they are not like my daughters or yours...they slept alongside men in the tents”– “they had to be given the virginity tests”. This was confirmed by three other generals who made statements to human rights delegations to the effect that “...virginity tests were procedural inside military prisons, conducted to avoid future allegations of rape by female protesters” (The Daily News Egypt, 26th February 2012).
It was a huge victory when the State Council Administrative Court issued an unprecedented decision in December 2011 outlawing virginity testing. On the day of the decision, though, the head of Egypt’s military judiciary came out saying that the administrative court’s ruling was not valid since such practices had never been policy in military prisons. This again contradicted earlier statements by members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Fources (SCAF), as seen above.
Parallel to this in a military court, the military male doctor who carried out the tests and who was accused of ‘sexual assault’ had the charge reduced by the military prosecutor to ‘public indecency’. The doctor was acquitted of the charges by the military court on 11 March 2012. A lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which represented the plaintive, said “We insist that we have enough evidence to prove the occurrence of ‘virginity tests,’ but we need a true independent judiciary to go to, and not a body that is part of the military, which is involved in the crime”. With the support of at least 15 human rights and women's NGOs, there is now discussion of the case being taken to regional and international courts.
The attack on the tents did not deter women revolutionaries from venturing into even more ‘unsafe’ spaces of protest. Marches, demonstrations and sit-ins targeted the official TV building, the Ministry of Interior, the Cabinet and the Parliament buildings. Many (mostly men) were killed and more were seriously injured, their eyes often targeted with rubber bullets. Despite images of these actions being repeatedly caught on camera, the police and army denied responsibility.
One such protest took place around the Cabinet building on 19 December 2011. The numbers were relatively small and they were attacked violently by the military police. A young woman was caught on camera being beaten by five military police, with one of them stomping on her chest. In the process she was dragged along the street at which point she was stripped to show her torso, as images of the incident show. She was named by the media as the ‘woman with the blue bra’.
While these pictures fuelled the anger of the majority of the revolutionaries and supporters of the revolution, their outrage focused mainly on the fact that she was left exposed. There was little said about the misogynist nature of the vicious beating. Voices among the general public opinion kept insinuating or directly asking ‘what was she doing there?’ or ‘women deserve what they get when they get involved in such protests’. Even though she was veiled, and wore an abaya (a long black dress-like garment), some still blamed her for attire that could so easily be stripped off! Others even raised questions as to why she was wearing a blue bra. A few were critical of the fact that no-one mentioned that one of the soldiers actually covered her up after the beating.
Some pointed to this treatment of women as a message that “... no girl or woman should go to the square to protest and if she insists on doing so – her male guardian [wali amraha] must prevent her by force and if he fails to do so then he has to bear the consequences”.
A number of incidents followed when women were dragged into buildings during smaller protests, were humiliated and insulted and asked who their fathers or their husbands were. The manhood of these relatives was questioned and their lack of control over their women criticised. Masculinity, honour and patriarchal control were constantly invoked.
The daughters and mothers of Egypt: Safer identities, ‘safer’ spaces?
At least two other main women’s demonstrations were organised, in which the change in language from 'women' to 'girls', and from 'women' to 'mothers', points to the effects of deploying culturally sanctioned identities. (In Arabic ‘bent’ (or ‘banat’ in the plural) means both girl(s) and daughter(s), and the slogan here was ‘daughters of Egypt’.)
Following the attack on the ‘the woman with the blue bra’ (who chose to remain anonymous), women organised a march on 20th of December 2011. Around 10,000 of them filled the streets of downtown Cairo. They had two main slogans: ‘banat massr ma tit’arrash’ (the daughters of Egypt do not get stripped) ‘banat massr khatt ahmar’ (the daughters of Egypt are a red line). These were followed by slogans demanding the end of military rule.
Uncharacteristically “...even before the protest was over, the military council issued an unusually strong statement of regret for what it called ‘violations’ against women... It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations” (The Telegraph, 21st December 2012).
Unlike the Women’s Day demonstration of March 8th, 2011, women were treated with respect. There were some men around, initially forming human chains to ‘protect’ the women, but eventually it was clear that protection was unnecessary. The support for the demands was quite universal. Some of the men passing by commented that they felt ashamed that it had taken women to call for the ‘protection of women’.
Islamist men were criticised because despite their talk of how women must be covered and their honour protected, they did not utter a word or take any action to object to the way women were manhandled and stripped.
It appears that references to ‘honour’ and the notion of ‘the protection of women’ largely came from male quarters. The way that women were shouting their slogans and the words they chose were more about the dignity and rights of ‘the daughters of Egypt’. It is true that one could read the emphasis on daughters (or girls) as a strategic choice (conscious or otherwise) to avoid confrontation: by invoking kinship and male responsibility. However, there was nothing in the demeanour of those thousands of marching women that evoked the need for ‘protection’, which in most patriarchal societies translates into their exclusion from public spaces. A very important statement came from a women’s group saying “What must be protected here is not women’s honour but rather their right to protest and be politically active alongside men as equal partners in this critical phase of Egypt’s history”.
A few weeks later, revolutionary graffiti portrayed the ‘blue bra woman’ not as a victim but a ‘wonder woman’.
Interestingly, the celebration for International Women’s Day 2012 was held under the banner of ‘Women with the Revolution’ with the motto: ‘My freedom, my dignity, my right’. It was a large demonstration (of around 10,000) and went off without any reported incidents.
There was a smaller demonstration of a few hundred women who marched with demands to the new Parliament (opened at the end of January 2012). The demonstration took place on 5 February 2012 after around a hundred football fans (later estimated to be closer to two hundred) were killed in football game in Port Said in suspicious circumstances (some relating it to a vendetta by the police) which had outraged everyone. This came after a series of killings and injuries to demonstrators.
The main slogans were “two steps: one is stop killing our children, two is hand over our country” (which rhymes in Arabic) and “My country give it back to me – my son, give him back to me”. Once again the women demonstrators were left in peace.
Women’s Exclusion: Spaces of Political (Non-)Representation
The first sign of a more formal exclusion of women occurred when a delegation of ‘youth of the revolution’, without a single woman amongst them, met with SCAF. This was apparently in contravention of what all that these groups had stood for, yet no voices expressed surprise, disappointment, let alone outrage – not even from the young women themselves who were at the heart of the revolutionary movements. Consecutive meetings with different authorities were again largely dominated by young men.
There were also no women among the delegation of ‘wise men’ (as they called themselves) created to advise SCAF and, more importantly, none in the Constitutional Amendments Drafting Committee. The signs are that little will change when it comes to the choice of ‘the hundred’ committee members who will draft the new Constitution. Since the revolution, there were only two women in the three consecutive cabinets and none amongst the provincial governors. These early signs of exclusion were dismissed by some as insignificant. Comments like “If women are not at the table they are certainly on the streets” were made.
The new Parliamentary election law, which contained many controversial clauses, also abolished the 12% quota for women. However, it retained the contentious 50% quota for workers and peasants, implying that it was not the principle of a quota that was an issue. To replace the quota system for women, a condition was added that party lists (each composed of an average eight names) must include at least one woman. All party lists (with a handful of exceptions) chose to put women at the bottom which gave women little chance of getting elected. Some of the most radical Islamists were against women’s representation but, in order to comply with the rules, replaced female candidates on election posters with flowers or pictures of their husbands. Despite the huge turnout of women (and men) voters, the result was abysmal, with women getting less than 2% of the seats.
Few outside the feminist movement were bothered about this result. One such exception was a newly elected MP and member of a liberal party who wrote in one of his weekly columns entitled Women Representation Scandal in the Parliament, that having only eight women in a so-called revolutionary Parliament is “shameful”. He then argued that the different parties, Islamist, liberal, socialist, capitalist and Sufi, chose in an “opportunistic way” to use an already discriminatory election law as a way to intentionally marginalise women. He asked: “how can we claim to represent Egypt when half of the population is represented by 2%?” In Tunisia there was the political will to use alternate names of women and men on party lists, which resulted in having 25% women in Parliament. However, looking beyond numbers at who they represent politically and what implications this might have on the position of women in Tunisia, is of legitimate concern.
Likewise with an Egyptian Parliament dominated by conservative Islamist parties, a large number of them belonging to an ultra conservative brand of Islam, what kind of representation of women can we expect? It remains to be seen how far members of the opposition might wish to fight for the rights of the millions of women who voted for them.
What new spaces?
The revolution has not yet delivered and everyone realises that there is still a long struggle ahead. The gains and losses of women in the different episodes highlighted in this article reflect the gains and losses of the revolution. Like men, women were attacked as revolutionaries, but they were also attacked as women. Like men, women pushed new boundaries at great risk, but they also pushed different boundaries, with their own risks and consequences. There is obviously a real threat of women losing what few and hard-earned rights they have. On the level of political representation alone, while they share a similar fate of exclusion with revolutionary and progressive men, their universal exclusion as women has its own serious implications. Engagement by women and human rights activists with a wider and more diverse constituency in Egyptian society is paramount. Tackling this exclusion and demanding new rights from within and from outside the revolutionary movement cannot be delayed.
This is an unfinished revolution. Millions of Egyptians believe that ‘the revolution continues’ (‘al thwara mostara’) but this leaves us with many questions. Can the revolutionaries work towards ‘dignity, freedom, social justice and livelihoods’ without transforming power relations, including gender relations? Are some men willing to challenge patriarchy so that they are neither oppressor nor oppressed? Are women revolutionaries creating new spaces, new ways of challenging existing power relations and even creating a new feminism (even if they might be unwilling to call it that)? Are women revolutionaries more able to work in new ways with the men with whom they shared that special space in the Square? Time will tell…