Revolution by half?

JESSICA GRAY | Updated on: Mar 24, 2011


Stunned by male harassment at the very square they had helped liberate barely weeks ago, Egyptian women are determined

Some women's rights groups in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, were hoping to mark International Women's Day with a thousand-strong rally in the heart of the city's downtown — Tahrir Square. Instead, less than one hundred showed up, and those who did were harassed and insulted for over two hours in the very square they helped liberate. Doing their best to ignore the taunts, several small groups of women clung to colourful signs with slogans in English and Arabic.

“I'd like to be able to walk down the streets, free of fear, free of judgment and that's it,” said Rehaam Romero, a 23-year-old copy editor. She held a sign with the words: ‘Equality, Education and Empowerment' and a hand-drawn Egyptian flag.

But her enthusiasm quickly faded after arriving in Tahrir Square, where she found hundreds of men crowding the women holding signs and chanting at them to leave. “I've never been as afraid as I am now in all my years in Egypt,” she said, watching men deride women standing nearby and yelling, “The people want to bring women down!”

Even the most stalwart participants left after the military fired shots into the air to break up a fight at the edge of the square, which almost caused a stampede.

Many activists on Twitter claim that the rally was deliberately targeted by thugs and regime loyalists who also reportedly caused mischief at the Coptic Christian protests held throughout the Capital. Sectarian tensions have increased with clashes between Egypt's Sunni Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who account for about 10 per cent of the population.

Whatever the cause, the unfortunate turn of events was disappointing for the rally's organisers.

Before the march, Aalam Wassef, one of the organisers from Women 4 Democracy, had said that the demonstration symbolised the “New Egypt” his group hoped to form in the wake of the end of former President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade reign.

“During the revolution, we witnessed an amazing sense of unity among the young and old, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, but there was something that happened that no one put into words, that men and women had joined together for their freedom,” said Wassef, who is also a co-founder of his group, which was established during the revolution.

Wassef described the organisation as a collective, without leadership or a set of rigid demands, much like the revolution itself. Its goal is to bring democracy to Egypt, which Wassef believes will herald positive change for women because democracy inherently protects the rights of individuals.

Most important, Women 4 Democracy wants to help ensure that the people who brought down the regime have a voice in the new government as well as any constitutional amendments. He said Egyptians are in a unique position to keep the pressure on the country's transitional Government and military council, both of which have promised to usher in a nation free of emergency rule and oppression.

“Women's voices were very powerful all through the revolution. So (our march) is not a separate movement from the revolution. It's the continuation of what started on January 25,” he added. Several of the online bloggers, Tweeters, journalists and activists behind the first protests were women.

According to Hoda Badran, chairperson of the Alliance for Arab Women, a women's rights group based in Cairo, keeping women's issues on the radar is not enough. Specific amendments to the Constitution and electoral law were needed to ensure women can participate in the new government.

“We have to be careful because, many times, women participate in the first part of the revolution and after it's finished, they are pushed back. So we are formulating groups of women and coalitions to demand to be part of everything,” said Hoda. “We were upset because the committee formed to change the 10 articles of the Constitution did not have any women.”

She says one way to ensure this is through voting — political party lists should include at least one female candidate for each position.

She also supports retaining the women-only parliament seats, introduced during last year's parliamentary elections under the Mubarak regime, for at least two terms to help increase women's political participation.

Hoda said there are more groups and non-governmental organisations devoted to women's issues in Egypt than ever before, but bringing about change won't be easy because there are still many people who feel women are not suited for leadership positions.

“The political scene has many obstacles that do not allow women to win in election campaigns,” she said. “We are (hoping) that the new Constitution will take into consideration that equality will permeate all articles ... We will have to be careful that the next Parliament will include very qualified women.”

By arrangement with Women's eNews

© Women's Feature Service

Published on March 24, 2011
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