by Manar Ammar
On Friday, February 11, 2011 President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt stepped down, ceding power to the Egyptian military. Vice President Omar Suleiman made the announcement via state television. - Ed.
The news from Egypt arrived: People are revolting against Mubarak. They are marching in the thousands, chanting their demands. The fear that had its tight fist around our necks has been broken. And in revolting, we won back part of our freedom: the freedom to say no.
My friends have been spending the night at Tahrir Square for over a week, sleeping in tents and waking to the drone of military tanks close by. We talk on the phone, and I repeatedly express how jealous I am of them. Any Egyptian who is not in Egypt right now shares my sentiment.
“We all want to be part of the change that is happening, and we want to help our brothers and sisters fight this fight,” Ezzat Fahmy, 31, an Egyptian living in the U.S. tells me at a solidarity protest in Los Angeles. “I wish we could be back even for a few days to share this sense of honor,” he adds.
Housewives, students, activists, and entire families are part of this rare Egyptian scene. Families have seated themselves on the capital’s busiest streets and are having food and chatting about the updates. Newly restored pride and a collective euphoria is empowering those in the “battlefield,” most of all women.
As social networks give people more opportunities to organize and freely express their thoughts, women are there, leading change on Facebook, attending pro-democracy demonstrations, and writing and blogging the current events.“Women’s participation here is unprecedented. I can safely say that the crowd is divided into half female, half male,” said Ms. Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR).
Women, who have suffered economic hardship just as men, also endure social injustices and violence. Women face cultural and social obstacles such as being underrepresented politically and also face extreme sexual harassment on the streets.
The Egyptian Chronicles, one of Egypt’s most popular blogs, is run by Zeinobia, an anonymous female blogger. “I am just [an] Egyptian girl who lives in the present with the glories of the past and hopes in a better future for herself and for her country,” says her About Me on the blog. Many have followed in Zeinobia’s footsteps, not only reporting, but documenting the current scene in Egypt. If it were not for online activism, much of Egypt’s sexual harassment would go unnoticed.
I have personally endured numerous sexual harassment experiences, and many of them could be described as sexual assaults. Mothers, like mine, tell us to ignore it for our own safety and walk on. “They could hit you if you raise your voice or fight back,” she used to tell me.
On many occasions women who try to fight sexual harassment are battered if no one from the public intervenes. And in most cases when women go to report sexual harassment, police advise them not to continue with the charges. “You will have to enter police stations, courts, and places a woman should not be,” one police officer “advised” me after I went to file a sexual harassment report.
The ECWR conducted a study in 2008 that found 98 percent of Egyptian women were sexually harassed on a daily basis - truth that needs no proof if you have ever visited the country or lived there. In Egypt violence against women is ingrained in the subordinate status of women in society and among families. Yet, harassment has not stopped women from taking to the streets along with their male counterparts in recent days.
Women have led many of the current demonstrations in Cairo chanting anti-Mubarak slogans. Girls have climbed on military tanks to salute the soldiers. Housewives fed up with poverty and hardship are standing side by side next to young, trendy college students chanting the same lines with the same urgency.
“We have created a new image in the media and for the world where women are strongly in the picture, and we must commit to that and maintain that presence,” Abul Komsan tells me. “Women’s participation has been very strong in all stages of the uprising, from the Internet to calling people to join, to being here every single day.”
“Young girls are asking their parents for permission and coming downtown,” Asma, a fine arts graduate tells me as while grabbing a bite before returning to the protest. “I was lying to my father about joining the protest, but now since everyone is out, I told him the truth.”
Ghada, a young housewife, went downtown with her husband and her 6-year-old boy to take part in the scene. She said that she finally feels safe in public. Despite the fact that there are a lot of angry people around, the protesters treat her with respect.
“Now that the police are back, harassment is back,” she adds. “My husband still wants me by his side just in case.”
With threats of violence around every corner, frightened citizens of Cairo are seeking refuge with neighborhood watches, groups of self-appointed young men who guard neighborhood and residential buildings from looting and attacks.
Amidst the violence, women are standing strong. Leading on the frontlines, reporting
updates on social media sites, tending to the wounded, and fighting thugs.
“Strangers are pulling us into their shops or homes to protect us from gun fire and mobs,” says one female reporter. “It is crazy to think all this happened in one week.”
In yet another stab to women’s rights, women have been overlooked in the opposition coalition. Despite massive female participation at the protests, all 10 individuals taking over leadership of the movement are male.
“This is a political struggle that aims to achieve freedom, justice and equality, but the equality part needs to be emphasized,” says Abu-Al-Qumsan. “It is a message to all Egyptian families - look at your daughters, they can usefully be part of change.”
Change is happening in Egypt. And Egypt’s women are fighting to be part of it.
About the Author:
Manar Ammar is an Egyptian journalist who was born and raised in Cairo. Her work has appeared in the Daily News Egypt, All Headline News (AHN), Al Helwa Weekly, Women News Network (WNN) and Bikya Masr. Manar's writing and reporting focuses on politics and women's issues in the MENA region.