EGYPT: The Revolution Isn't Over for the Women of Tahrir Square

Monday, February 28, 2011
The Huffington Post
Northern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes
Human Rights

2011 did not witness the first Egyptian revolution. After all, Egypt's Tahrir ("Liberation") Square earned its name from some other struggle. For Egypt, this liberation came in the 1920s when men, women, Muslims, Christians, the young and the old from across the land rallied to drive the British out of Egypt. They succeeded in no small part due to the role Egyptian women played during the 1919 revolution. It was then that 300 women demonstrators led by Hoda Sha'arawi took to the streets raising the crescent and the cross to symbolize national unity and denounce British occupation.

Four years later, Sha'arawi called for a demonstration, the first of its kind, for the foundation of the first Egyptian Women's Union. But shortly following independence the inspired demands of these same women for equal rights and political representation were denied by the ruling Wafd party. Following the joyous tumult of Egypt's recent revolution, this scenario is playing itself out again. Though women played a critical role during last month's protests, their future as stakeholders in Egypt's political process is being marginalized.

Throughout the weeks leading up to Mubarak's resignation, women were widely visible on TV reportedly comprising 50% of the protesters. Many mothers, confident of the movement's success and the crowd's intentions, brought their daughters to Tahrir Square to witness history. Women from all walks of life slept, worked and defended protesters alongside their male counterparts in Tahrir Square. Bloggers like Asma Mahfouz inspired thousands of young men and women to initially march on Tahrir Square and activists like Mona Seif and Gigi Ibrahim, both women, continued to inspire hundreds of thousands with their acts of courage. Outside Egypt, journalists like Mona Eltahawy led an international media campaign widely credited for helping Americans and American media outlets understand realities on the ground.

Yet today, not one of these strident female champions of the Egyptian Revolution has a seat on the newly formed constitutional committee. Even before the protests, female political power and representation in Mubarak's Egypt was unsubstantial and token at best. For years the Mubarak regime suppressed female political participation and spread a culture of fear and distrust throughout Egypt. Despite the movement's call for reform, female participation in the committees and leadership of the revolution is shockingly disproportionate to their presence during the protests.

On February 15th, Egyptian judge Tarek-al-Bishry was appointed by the mostly male military to oversee the creation of a ten-member constitutional committee responsible for amending Egypt's constitution to conform to the protesters demands. The panel, handpicked by Bishry and consisting mostly of fellow judges and politicians, does not feature a single woman. It is a testament to how marginalized women are in Egypt that Egyptian analysts are more dismayed at the appointment of only a single Coptic Christian member (9% of the population) than the appointment of even one woman (50% of the population).

And it's not for lack of talent or trying, as some assume. Arab women are often inaccurately portrayed as downtrodden to the point of political apathy. This is not the case in Egypt. Substantial, vocal, female participation in the protests is the clearest indicator of their proactive efforts at engagement. Moreover, though Egypt is brimming with female academics, lawyers, and activists, none of these women, some experts in constitutional law, have been recruited to help in the aftermath of the revolution. And startlingly, the youth-led movement, vaunted for its liberal and forward-thinking attitude has also failed to support female participation. The international news media hasn't done much better. Coverage of these issues has been scant. While watching coverage of the protests, I was confounded by the media's unequal emphasis on male protesters and analysts despite the considerable presence of informed women like Elthaway at Tahrir and abroad.

Sadly, this is not unprecedented. Revolutionaries often celebrate the role of women and then quietly dismiss them. Quickly forgotten and sidelined, the same women who often risk just as much if not more than their male counterparts are left without a voice in post-revolution regimes.

In Iran, young women had increasingly been serving in positions of leadership leading up to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and played a critical role throughout the Revolution itself. They were inspired by their dreams of democracy, equality and economic justice only to see those hopes crushed when Khomeini came to power. Under Khomeini female judges and politicians were sidelined and in some cases, forbidden from holding office .

Even in this country strident revolutionaries accomplished as much, if not more, than their unfettered male counterparts. During the American Revolution women like Deborah Sampson even fought on the battlefield, dressing up as men and duping their comrades for the sake of their country. Yet in the aftermath of the Revolution and despite Sampson's courageous service during which she was wounded in the line of duty and promoted for valor, Congress first denied and then stymied her attempts to receive a pension.

To be sure, women have achieved substantial social gains in the wake of Mubarak's resignation. In a country where 86% of women experienced a form of harassment in 2008, women widely reported no such incidents throughout the weeks of protest. Despite these gains, prospects for political participation for Egyptian women remain increasingly bleak.

If only to honor the lives lost during the protests, what happened in Egypt's past must not happen again. Women have spoken out against Mubarak and for a new Egypt and they must continue to speak out and make sure they are heard as clearly as they were during the eighteen days of protest. More importantly, as Egyptian academic and Ashoka Vice-President, Dr. Iman Bibars recently noted, women must also organize to ensure that female representation in the new government is not insignificant. Dr. Bibars is one of the few recognized women working towards this endeavor.

And men, particularly those Egyptian men who stood beside these women during the protests, must own up to the ethos that propelled their rebellion and ensure that the power brokers in the new Egypt include women and guarantee female participation in Egyptian politics. Unless Egyptians continue to demand a role for women, female participation in Egyptians politics, like former Egyptian dictators, may be headed to the dustbin of obscurity. Again.