Egypt: the two faces of liberation

"The goddess Sekhmet has risen once and will rise again so Hathour can flourish in peace and justice" - Zainab Magdy reports from Cairo as women gather for the Million Women March in Tahrir Square today

Zainab Magdy
8 March 2011

The ancient Egyptian goddess, Hathor, is the goddess of love, beauty, wine, song and dance. Hathor, who is depicted as a cow, had another face, that of the goddess of war and healing: the lioness Sekhmet. On the 25th of January, a coin was tossed to reveal the fate of Egypt and it fell showing the face of the lioness who was raging with anger.

Myth says that Sekhmet's anger once could not be stopped until she was made to drink red wine thinking it was the blood of the people and so passed out. But rising in the souls of the Egyptians on the 25th of January after sleeping for years, the angry goddess did resort to bloodshed. Rather, she – the feminine - moved in pride in us all as we asked for our right to freedom.

Some might think it’s a bit too extreme, but that's how it strikes me just after a month since this has began. This revolution and everything that has happened is so related to the presence of Hathor and Sekhmet and I just came to realize it now. I was never proud to be Egyptian in the way that I am at this time. Words like country, freedom, future and patriotism have come to mean something. I remember my friend Reem saying "it's about having a place to belong to" and I know that this Revolution has changed my future and I am grateful.

Zainab Magdy (centre)

Up until now, it's very difficult to process all that has happened and everything that still is. Today, I'm getting ready to be at Tahrir Square at 3 pm to join the Million Women March all over Egypt calling for women rights and recognition. However, during all this time, I never stopped to think of myself as a woman or as a feminist or any other thing. I am an Egyptian I thought to myself. This single word - which I believe so many of my generation have come to know only during these times - was the only thing I could think of then. There was no room for division.  Now, reflecting on all that has happened and thinking of the hundreds of women I saw on television and in the streets, I am proud to have been raised by an Egyptian woman and to be one. Sitting down to write this, I am amazed at the strength and diligence Egyptian women have shown through this. I remember watching a young woman – perhaps in her late teens – leading a group of grown men and women in chanting against the government, calling for the downfall of Mubarak. She stood fearless facing the troops of riot police with the people behind her. She was veiled and young and she insisted on calling out for freedom. Freedom as an Egyptian, a civilian, a human being: freedom for her to stand like that and not be judged for her gender or age. 

During the weeks Egyptians have spent in Tahrir square, we have come to see another side of us as a people. In Tahrir square there was no harassment, there was no division in religion, age, social status, educational status or gender. After Sekhmet had cooled down, there was room for the goddess of beauty to appear in Egyptians. Women were side by side with the men and no one stopped to question someone's gender. There was something bigger holding the people together. Personally, I was always apprehensive about walking in the streets. The possibility of someone grabbing you or maybe worse was on my mind all the time. The first time I was in Tahrir in the middle of the waves of people I was about to be trampled on, and suddenly this guy standing beside me lifted me and put me on the curb we were standing next to so I would be a bit higher. I don't remember his face. What I remember was that I wasn't scared, or straining my brain to react fast. My sister got on the curb beside me and a woman whom I personally would never have thought I would accept - or she would accept me  - put her arm around my sister's shoulders, hugging her, embracing her warmly, as we all stood there chanting and singing. Friends who witnessed one attempt at harassment at the Square told me how everyone taught the guy a lesson he wouldn't forget any time soon.

Blogger and political activist Mona Ahmed Seif says that she personally felt different in Tahrir. Seif says "I felt accepted and welcome for the first time by young men in my country. They treated me as a peer, and it was great getting into political discussions with random guys in Tahrir square feeling completely at ease and safe." The experience in Tahrir Square has changed her, Mona says. "It changed how I see myself among a crowd and the streets of Cairo. It changed my body language in public. I became stronger & more confident while dealing with others." Things have changed for Seif during the Revolution: "I walk around alone late at night feeling safe. I haven't had a single sexual harassment incident. Turns out even Mubarak was responsible for that." Now, women are hoping this feeling of safety would become something larger.

The stereotypes of Egyptian women being dependent and unable to act independently were shattered during the days of the revolution. I was surprised to see all these women from different backgrounds side by side with the men and youth calling for their rights. There would be a group of women – whom I would have once avoided and labeled them as Muslim Brotherhood – walking in a group around the Square with strength and vitality calling for the downfall of the regime. I joined them as they passed beside me in the sea of people in the Square. Remembering the protests of students who called themselves the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood and how the young women would walk silently after the men, I would be infuriated. Now, these women I joined and others are making history, shouting and singing and sending out trills of joy without thinking that a woman's voice shouldn’t be heard. This revolution proved that Egyptian women have a voice which they aren't afraid to use.

Evelyn Ashamallah, painter and writer, believes that "once the whole society rises, the status of the woman will rise as well. The base of democracy for any people is social justice – on all levels – it would allow women to rise and make room for accepting her role." Ashamallah, who is in her sixties, is very optimistic with this generation: "the girls are taking part in this revolution right next to the guys; the Egyptian woman has been present and insistent."

Celebrating at Tahrir still after Mubarak left were women from all over Cairo and Giza. I remembering seeing a woman who I never imagined in such a context sitting on the floor with bags around her in the shade. I watched her as I waited for a friend as she opened bags of bread, opened them, took out pieces of chicken and made sandwiches. She gave out sandwiches to her granddaughters and to the strange woman sitting next to her. I grinned – this revolution surprised me and I was grateful for the surprises. They were still celebrating on the 4th of March as our new Prime Minister addressed the crowds in the middle of Cairo.

Hala Kamal, Professor of Literature at Cairo University and feminist activist is "very optimistic" about the future of women. Recalling how harassing women sexually was one of the means the security forces resorted used to keep women from resisting, Dr. Kamal says "it was natural and expected to see women taking an active role in 25 January and onwards by an actual presence in Tahrir. Women took shifts guarding the entrances to the Square at the most critical moments".  They spent nights in the square during the sit-ins; and "by doing so, these women were not only standing hand in hand with men, breaking the curfew, but many have definitely broken the social taboo preventing women from spending the night outside home".  Today, March 8th, Egyptian women are calling for a Million March to demand women's rights both socially and politically. Changes are happening and women are demanding a place in the political scene, and that their demands and their status in the society be acknowledged. Such marches for Egyptian women are not only a product of what is happening now. Before the news of Mubarak's stepping down, Professor of Poetry at Cairo University Maha El Said created an event on Facebook called "Women of the Revolution" to gather and march on the 12th of February: not for women rights but as an acknowledgement of the presence of women in Tahrir Square. The women who would have gathered there would not only be those would call themselves feminists, but also those who have been thought of as adhering to the stereotypes of dependent and weak women. Believing that the presence of women in the protests would give more "credibility for women's demands for equality and justice in the process that follows", Dr. Kamal is "pleased to see that the Egyptian Women's Organizations have come together forming a Coalition of Feminist Organizations" and declared that they do not "recognize the National Council for Women as a representative of Egyptian women."

It wasn't just the intellectuals and feminist activists who were aware of the presence of women and their representation. Women who are not part of such categories were not only participants in the Revolution but also have come to understand and see the place of Egyptian women on the streets and as a force to be reckoned with. Um Omar, a grandmother from Rod El Faraag, was in Tahrir on March 4 as well as Feb 11. She believes that the Egyptian woman has proven herself even before this revolution. Um Omar, who covers her face with the niqab, says that the woman has a role where ever she is situated - a ministry or a home - "to stand by this revolution and be part of it by spreading its ideas and ideals." Her friend Um Shorouq who also wears the niqab says "we've become enlightened so that even those who didn't know now do and that makes all the difference".

Howaida Muhammad, a house wife from Talbiya, Giza, went to demonstrations and sit-ins but did not spend the night. Howaida and other women from her area and close neighborhoods would walk in a large group to join larger demonstrations. "Once we walked all the way from where we live (which is more than an hour away from Tahrir on foot) to the Square. Every day we were here". During Bloody Wednesday, February 2nd, the women were collecting chunks of rock to give to the men fighting Mubarak's thugs she says. "The women would carry the rocks in their galabiyas and long scarves. They slept on the ground in the Square just like the men. There was no difference." Um Omar, Howaida's neighbor and friend, was sad at the female representation in the last Parliament elections – besides the forgery that is. "We want women to represent us but not those of the National Democratic Party. We want someone who would listen to us and understand our needs and do her best to make more things possible for us."

Among the pictures of the martyrs of the Revolution there was one who stood out, that of Sally Zahran: the only picture of a female. Although Zahran's death at Tahrir is not confirmed ( as there are rumours of her death elsewhere )  the image of her radiant and vivacious face has moved so many and has become almost iconic. Yet days after Mubarak stepped down there were groups which spread on Facebook calling for her image to be one with her wearing a veil and photo shopping her picture to remove her hair. Despite dying out a week after they started, these groups infuriated me. It is exactly this that we want to change: we want to accept people as they are and try not to mould them. Women need to be accepted as they are; we don't want to have to adhere to any form of patriarchy anymore. Dissolving patriarchal rules and calling out for changes that would protect women from any kind of abuse and insisting on equality: this is the time for change.

A lecture took place on the 5th of March, the first day of the spring semester at public universities in Cairo, at the Faculty of Political Science and Economics entitled "The Constitutional Amendments from Women's Perspective". I've been added to groups like "Egyptian Women for Change" and reading articles posted on Facebook about Egyptian women and how they've shown a real change in the Middle East. And yet there are comments on the wall of the event of the Million March for Women saying that this is not the time. Other comments ridicule the importance of such a move in the first place. Novelist, Assistant Professor at Cairo University and gender trainer, Sahar Elmougy was "provoked by the selection of the committee that was responsible for amending the constitution" as it excluded women and Copts, and says that when it comes to women and their rights it is never the right time. "Though I believe democracy and freedom would certainly reflect positively on women’s status, yet I was provoked by the selection of. The choice is very telling: this is a male and Muslim society". Affirming the importance of the Million Woman March taking place later today, Elmougy stresses the importance of women: they make up half of the society and raise the other half, they "are very important". Taking the example of the Algerian resistance against the French occupation, Elmougy emphasizes the role Algerian women played and how once the "dream of liberation was realized they were subjected to male oppression as if they were slaves. Since people say 'this is not the right time', women should raise their voices loud and clear affirming 'the time is now'."

My younger sister, Amna, who is 17, was asking me when we are supposed to gather for the March on Tuesday. At 3 pm in Tahrir Square today women who have read about the Million Women March on Facebook or any of the newspapers which have written about it on their internet portals will show up. And when it's in the papers with pictures of women – young, old, veiled, wearing niqab, Copts and Muslims – other women will know and become more aware. Like Um Shorouq said, it's all about the knowing: it is about being enlightened. Sekhmet has risen once and will rise again so Hathour can flourish in peace and justice.  I never believed January 25 could ever happen; now I am so happy I've been proven wrong. I am just waiting for the coin to be tossed again because I am very optimistic about Egyptian women and the strength of their spirits. It doesn't matter which side it falls on, the cow or the lioness; they're both faces of just how strong we are.



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