Women Take the Helm in Egypt

I wrote about the massive uprising in Egypt earlier this week, but events are moving so fast that I have to write again, and by the time you read this post, it may well be outdated. The latest development is that the Mubarak administration is apparently sending armed and organized gangs of thugs out onto the streets to masquerade as counter-protesters, probably in the hopes of provoking a violent confrontation that would force the army to intervene. American journalists including Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour have already been assaulted.

That notwithstanding, I continue to be enormously impressed by how peaceful and how resolute the anti-Mubarak protests have been. I also note with pleasure that women are actively taking a leadership role, especially a famous YouTube video by 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz that played a pivotal role in the January 25 initial uprising:

“As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope.” That was what Ms. Mahfouz had to say in a video she posted online more than two weeks ago. She spoke straight to the camera and held a sign saying she would go out and protest to try to bring down Mr. Mubarak’s regime.

This was certainly not the first time a young activist used the Internet — later virtually shut down by the government — as a tool to organize and mobilize, but it departed from the convenient, familiar anonymity of online activism.

More than that, it was a woman who dared put a face to the message, unfazed by the possibility of arrest for her defiance. “Do not be afraid,” she said.

The major role women played in the genesis of the protests is probably part of the reason why they’ve been so unusually egalitarian, as outside observers found to their surprise. As reporter Sarah Topol wrote for Slate:

Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. In a 2008 study, 86 percent of women said they had been harassed on Egypt’s streets — any woman walking through a crowd of men in Egypt braces to get groped. But in the square, crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, men apologized if they so much as bumped into you. After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t been groped, a constant annoyance when I’m faced with large crowds in Cairo.

And in the square itself, women have been taking a leadership role as well – organizing checkpoints to search newcomers for weapons, and continuing to speak out for themselves:

Soheir Sadi was one of them. This morning, she sat in the square with her 14-year-old daughter. They had come every day since the protests started on Jan. 25. “I came seeking my rights, like any Egyptian. I rent my apartment, I don’t own it, and I can’t afford food. What kind of life is that? And for my children?” she asks. “I wasn’t afraid for my daughter, because everyone is family in the square. We are all real men standing up for ourselves, even the girls. And now they have learned that they can protect themselves like men.”

It’s still too early to say if Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt the Egyptian revolution to their own ends, but reports like these give me hope that they won’t. From what I’ve heard, the marchers are largely young and secular, far more concerned with their national than their religious identity, and seeking reasonable, this-worldly goals like good jobs and a fairer distribution of wealth. Any religious movement that tried to hijack the protesters’ energy and passion to impose sharia law, they’d surely resist as fiercely as they’ve resisted Mubarak’s autocratic rule. And every woman like Asmaa Mahfouz who has the courage to throw off her culture’s stifling prejudices about gender roles and demand liberty is a living repudiation of theocracy. Is it too ambitious to hope that some of them could ultimately sit in the Parliament of a free, secular and democratic Egypt?

UPDATE: Further thoughts.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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