Feminism in Cairo takes a hit on International Women’s Day
- Published: 12 March 2011
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Just a few weeks after men and women stood together for weeks to topple the decades-long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, forward-looking Egyptian women are coming to grips the limits of the revolution. Women’s rights activists in Cairo called for a “Million Woman March” in Tahrir Square on the centennial International Women’s Day. It did not go well, writes Heather Michon.
13 March 2011
Some media reports put the turnout at the march at around a thousand people, although some on the scene say it was far smaller. In any case, it was not enough to make a visual splash, but more than enough to bring out angry counter-protesters.
“Men are men and women are women and that will never change,” CNN reported one repeated chant. “And go home, that’s where you belong.” The rallying cry of misogynists worldwide.
Ahmed Awadalla was one of a few men who joined the women in their protest, and was called a “faggot” and “unpatriotic” by the counter-protesters for his efforts. He tweets that, of the 200 women he was with in Tahrir, almost all were harassed in one way or another. “Seeing my friends getting groped and unable to protect them breaks my heart.”
“Men chanted "Why there were no male prophets?" before harassing women,” he went on to say. He also heard shouts of “women’s voice is a shame.”
Ebony Coletu, a American who teaches at American University in Cairo, told the Washington Post that she was one of many women who were sexually assaulted by the men. "I was grabbed in the crotch area at least six times. I was grabbed in the breasts; my throat was grabbed."
She was among those who eventually took refuge in a storefront being used by the Egyptian Army.
She says men were accusing them of being foreigners “as if an Egyptian woman wouldn’t dare ask for equal rights.” At one point, men were shouting “down with women” and “false, false, get out.”
Despite the risk, Egyptocracy took at least one of the “anti-demos” head on:
“Me: I want the right to run for president. You are free not to vote for me.
Man: You want a constitution void of principles.”
“Man: What if a woman president gets pregnant, who will rule when she delivers?
Me: Who would rule when a man president gets ill? Didn’t Mubarak get ill and leave Egypt for two weeks or more? Or is it only ok when a man is hospitalized.
Man: It’s different.”
Lauren Bohn, a Fulbright scholar and multimedia journalist who attended the rally, tweets that one female protester told her: "I was grabbed today while shouting for my rights. We have more work to do than we thought"
Just a few weeks after men and women stood together for weeks to topple the decades-long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, forward-looking Egyptian women are coming to grips the limits of the revolution. Among the first hard slap: there will be no women among the group drafting the new constitution.
Egyptian feminists are hardly asking for the moon. They already have the vote. Now they want their votes to count, they want to be able to be able to run for all political offices -- up to and including the presidency -- and they want to have a constitution that removes the barriers of gender, religion and nationality from their society.
They want a platform where they can begin to work on the larger societal issues like female genital mutilation and the pervasive sexual harassment of women in public spaces.
They’re being told: “Not now.”
“Not now” is not acceptable. American women were told “not now” in the 1860s, when they were told that, after putting their own suffrage movement on hold for the duration of the Civil War and devoting their time and toil to the Union war effort, that they would have to table their own bid for the vote so that newly freed male slaves could go first.
Ethically, it was the right thing to do, but tactically, the loss of almost a decade of lobbying and the failure to grab the momentum of the post-war reform mood was devastating to the movement. It was another half-century before they won suffrage.
Egyptian feminists are fighting stiff cultural and religious headwinds. The odds that they can seize this moment and ride it to greater freedom for themselves and nearly 40 million of their daughters, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends seem beyond long.
Two months ago, if you had said millions of Egyptians would peacefully topple a 40-year dictatorship and the entire apparatus of terror that held it in place, nobody would have believed you. It was was audacious. It was dangerous. It was unlikely to work.
And yet...here we are.
Heather Michon is an essayist, a historian, a feminist, a wife and a daughter...all with varying degrees of success. Follow her on Twitter @heathermichon