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this week, but events are moving so fast that I have to write again, and by the time you read this post, it may well be outdated.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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  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    I am cautiously hopeful about Egypt. Unfortunately, revolutions have a tendency to morph from popular uprisings to a power grab by a clique. Time will tell.

  • Jormungund

    they’d surely resist as fiercely as they’ve resisted Mubarak’s autocratic rule

    I hope this is true, but I’m not so sure.
    I met a few Egyptians at my university. Except for one guy, they were hate spewing religious extremists. It would sound as though I were making stuff up if I described how over-the-top they were.
    I’m really hoping that they were just atypical Egyptian rich kids that got sent to America for education. Hopefully your typical Egyptian isn’t like those people.

  • Alex Weaver

    Huh, no comment from bbk yet about the impending rise of a totalitarian matriarchy in the middle east?

  • Nathaniel

    Just wait for the voices in his head to get the stolen intel from the Protocols of the Bigoted Bitches of Feminism. Then bbk will be right on it. Many Bothans will have died retrieving the information, and its only right that their sacrifice should not be in vain.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I have some updates that are relevant to this post. First, this article, “The Youth Unemployment Bomb“, which suggests one possible reason for why women have been so involved in the protests – they’re bearing the brunt of religious discrimination in an already stratified and sclerotic society. Sexism gives rise to its own antidote!

    Much of the anger that boiled over in [Tunisia and Egypt], in fact, came from college graduates who couldn’t put their degrees to work. Typical is Saad Mohammed, 25, a 2010 graduate of Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar University, interviewed in Liberation Square between protests. He feels betrayed that he has been unable to find work in his chosen field, “origins of religion.” Mohammed hopes that “a new government will give me a job in a religious charity.” The mismatch is worst for young women in the Middle East, who are getting as much advanced education as men but have far fewer job opportunities.

    There’s also this update from Nicholas Kristof, telling the story of two young women who showed terrific courage in facing down a violent pro-government mob:

    Then along came two middle-age sisters, Amal and Minna, walking toward the square to join the pro-democracy movement. They had their heads covered in the conservative Muslim style, and they looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shouted at them.

    Yet side by side with the ugliest of humanity, you find the best. The two sisters stood their ground. They explained calmly to the mob why they favored democratic reform and listened patiently to the screams of the pro-Mubarak mob. When the women refused to be cowed, the men lost interest and began to move on — and the two women continued to walk to the center of Tahrir Square.

    There’s also an essay by Scott Atran on why the Muslim Brotherhood has been shut out of the revolution.

  • tk

    If wealth will ultimately be “redistributed” what exactly would be the incentive for anyone to create wealth? I’m just sayin…..

  • Nathaniel

    Not only are you a smug, clueless ass, you are an off topic clueless ass, and unfortunately will likely soon be a thread jacking clueless ass.

    Just sayin.

  • Mark C.

    Hey Ebon, your Universal Utilitarianism has been analyzed by a Randist: http://angel14.com/2011/02/03/universal-utilitarianism/

    I haven’t read any, though it’s not likely to be very good when I can spot the name “Ayn Rand” in it.

  • Samuel

    “If wealth will ultimately be “redistributed” what exactly would be the incentive for anyone to create wealth? I’m just sayin…..”

    Less than 100% redistribution so that the incentive remains? People seem to work well enough with about 50% tax rate. Plus if you use the wealth to make services (roads, police, education, etc) than the rich benefit as much as or more than the poor by the redistribution.

  • http://angel14.com/ evanescent

    Mark C, maybe you could get off your fan-boi “me too” soapbox and give me your philosophical deconstruction of the Critique? To be honest, “Randists” like me have come to expect “i haven’t actually read it but…” to precede all criticisms of Objectivism :) Well of course, actually “reading” another philosophical system that threatens your most cherish beliefs?! Hang on a second, what does that remind me of… :)

    Fear not, I look forward to seeing your objective rational humanist philosophy at work in criticising something other than gods and unicorns? Are you up for the challenge, Mark?

    ps: I sent Ebon a private mail pointing out my article to him, as opposed to coming over here and simply linking to it. I think he deserved courtesy and respect in this regard. Funny that you show none to me, Mark. I also offered Ebon the chance to continue a discussion over e-mail which I would readily enjoy for both our benefits.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    No off-topic comments, please.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I am super excited for Egyptian women, just as I am super excited for Tunisian women (not really understanding how the Tunisian revolution, which served as the catalyst for the Egyptian revolution, has been getting almost no press coverage, relatively speaking), and I am also super concerned for the women of the Maghreb.

    Democracy doesn’t always serve women — especially if you’re talking about a purely majoritarian, might makes right, moral majority will rules, democracy.

    The meaning of a real democracy has come to include notions of secularism, human rights and rule of law.

    Women should be fighting for secularism above all else.

    This is why, often, secular authoritarian regimes have been kinder to women than theocracies/majoritarian democracies.

    The Tunisian women are rallying to insist that they will not sacrifice their rights for democracy.

    Egyptian women need to follow their lead, just as they followed the Tunisian women into revolution.

    The exiled Islamists from Tunisia are returning to the country in droves.

    Now is the time for us, all of use, the entire world, to stand up for women’s rights as universal human rights, in the same way that we all stood behind a revolution to topple tyranny and usher in democracy.

    There is no real democracy without women’s rights as universal human rights.