Tahrir Square: Back to Square One


“The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for the revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and the precondition for its victory. The main objective of the revolution is to destroy the system of exploitation and build a new society which releases the potentialities of human beings” Samora Machel

On the evening of January 25, 2011 in anticipation of a protest planned at Tahrir Square a 26 year old Egyptian women named Asmaa Mahfouz released an on-line video announcing “I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and l will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honour…” The following day on January 26 tens of thousands of Egyptians responded to her announcement by occupying Tahrir Square and in two weeks of protests, street battles and marches against government forces and thugs backed by the regime forced the ouster of the dictator Mubarak, the strongman of the Middle East. The world watched in awe as a people long oppressed by their own government took a stand against tyranny and brutality to assert their dignity and rights as free men and women. To quote Asmaa they “showed some honour” and for a moment inspired the world.

Sista Asmaa did not stand alone at Tahrir nor did other Egyptian women during the uprising, they stood alongside men and fought with the same courage and dignity as their male partners. They lead chants, spoke at rallies, tended to the wounded, battled Mubarak’s thugs and celebrated in Tahrir when Mubarak was deposed. Women left Tahrir Square with a sense of empowerment, solidarity and hope for their earned roles in the future of a new Egypt. To quote Sarah Rifaat, a Tahrir protester; “For once, in the revolution, there were people who were veiled and unveiled. who had different ideologies but who focused not on the differences but on what brought them together”. Women were also impressed with their relationship with men at Tahrir, where both men and women fought side by side in a spirit of camaraderie. “What happened in Tahrir was a phenomenon, everyone was contributing equally, and it seemed natural” said Yasmine Khalifa, a student protester. So it was in the days following the uprising when women expected a prominent role within the new Egyptian society.

Now it seems however that Egyptian women are standing alone as they face setbacks after their performance at Tahrir. In the days following Mubarak’s ouster women protesters from Tahrir planned a Million Women March to assert their rights and to remind the military regime that ousted Mubarak that the uprising was not about removing one dictator but about transforming a society. In the days leading up to the march women were discouraged from participating in the march by the Military Council which released press statements that questioned the honor of women that attended the march. On the day of the march when a few hundred women defied the Military Councils warning and gathered in Tahrir Square men who only days before fought beside them at Tahrir heckled them with shouts of “Go home, the revolution is over” and “a women’s place is at home not in politics”. Ethar El—Katatney, an Egyptian women who writes a blog from Cairo expressed a deep sense of betrayal and disappointment at the treatment she and other female veterans of Tahrir experienced that day. The new society they hoped to help create was being blunted by men attempting to preserve their privileged position within Egyptian culture and the Military Council, remnants of the old regime, was desperate to divide the solidarity of the youth to prevent any real changes to the Egyptian state so it deployed the gender card and manipulated the men into undermining the revolutionary spirit of Tahrir.

Even worse than the treatment at the hands of the men at Tahrir on the day of the Million Women March was the treatment women protesters endured in the weeks following Tahrir when protesters again took to the streets to protest the slow pace the Military Council was enacting reforms. The Military detained hundreds of protesters and reports emerged that 17 female protesters were taken to a Military Barracks and subjected to “virginity tests” by nurses under the supervision of a male doctor. ls this the change men and women fought for at Tahrir? For those of us living in the West it is hard to imagine how brave it is for Egyptian women to even show up at protests, especially under the former regime of Mubarak. Sexual assault was a common tactic employed against women protesters by Mubarak’s regime. Under Mubarak the regime employed thugs to break up protests and to specifically target women protesters. Thugs would seize a woman protesting and drag her away into an alleyway or stairwell and gang rape her as a means of intimidation to discourage them from participating in future protests. CNN’s Middle East Correspondent Ben Wedermen reported this was a well-known and widespread practice during Mubarak’s rule however what struck me besides the inhumanity of the practice was why CNN and the State Department never reported this or condemned it until it became apparent Mubarak was on his way out. CBS news correspondent Lara Logan who was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted alter being dragged away from her l crew during the celebrations at Tahrir Square the night of Mubarak’s ouster most likely was the victim of these thugs once employed by Mubarak, perhaps as payback for the U.S. abandoning Mubarak.

In a state that employed thugs to sexually assault women and used sexual abuse as a state policy of torture it is inevitable that these attitudes and practices will spill over into society for if the state practices or tolerates sexual abuse than society will become more tolerant of it. Especially in authoritarian states that control mass media, education and cast omnipresent shadows over basic civic and social life. The Wikileaksclassified diplomatic cables revealed a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt stating that torture was so widespread in Egypt that it impacted every layer of society. Everyone from political dissidents to citizens brought in for routine questioning were subject to torture, often sexual abuse. It would be naive to believe that the official use of torture at this level would not intersect with Egyptian society as within this permissive atmosphere women, traditionally the most vulnerable segment of the population, suffer the consequences. So according to the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights the past decade has experienced a marked rise in the rape and groping of Egyptian women. Coincidentally this same decade followed the end of the war between armed Egyptian Islamist movements and Mubarak’s regime which used sexual torture as a matter of routine in this war that tore at the social fabric of Egypt during the l990’s. The same centre also found that 83% of Egyptian women said they had suffered sexual harassment and that 62% of Egyptian men admitted harassing women. 53% of the men blamed women for bringing it on themselves.

I’m not a social scientist so l cannot explain all of the complex reasons for discrimination against women within Egyptian society or for that Western society as l’m sure the statistics of women harassed in the U.S. probably mirrors or exceeds Egypts. What l can say is that if the Egyptian Revolution is to proceed and build upon the gains of Tahrir Egyptian men must accept women as their partners in this struggle, not convenient fodder to be called out when the going gets rough. Egyptian women were empowered by their participation in the uprising and it would be a betrayal of the spirit of Tahrir if Egyptian men, having removed a tyrant in concert with women, turn around and oppress the aspirations of Egyptian women who want to contribute to the transformation of Egyptian society and assert their natural rights.

l can also say that instead of attempting to silence and suppress Egyptian women the men should be listening to them as the women have demonstrated far better long term vision and political maturity than the men as evidenced by the Million Women March days after Mubarak’s ouster. When many men celebrated it as a victory women appear to have viewed Mubarak’s ousting as a first step towards dismantling the entire repressive state g Mubarak created. They continue to be the most vocal critics of the Military Council and remnants of the corrupt state while many of the opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, remain silent and more concerned with gaining electoral victories in the upcoming elections that will legitimize the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. Women having suffered gender discrimination instinctively knew the battle to transform Egyptian society had just begun while the men, accustomed to gender privilege, once having removed Mubarak still enjoyed their privileged role within Egyptian society. This doesn’t mean that nothing has changed since Mubarak’s ouster for Egyptian men but unlike women who face gender discrimination and suppression on a daily basis men have emerged with some breathing room to openly express their political beliefs while women are reminded to remain silent. Egyptian women have an incentive in the form of daily oppression that makes them far more willing to confront the old remnants of the regime and push the uprising from revolt to revolution. In a society that traditionally views a women’s place as outside politics the assertiveness of Egyptian women is a difficult phenomenon for Egyptian men to embrace.

The unease in which Egyptian men view the recent rise of women’s assertiveness after Tahrir could easily be misinterpreted and misrepresented as Western values intruding and trampling upon Egypt’s culture, customs and religion as the idea of the emancipation of women, and by extension human rights, has traditionally been used by Western imperialist powers against the Third World to undermine revolutions, promote Western financial interests and create divisions within traditional societies to make the exploitation of the natural resources more easy for international corporations. In short whenever the West promotes human rights in a Third World nation it is often a means to turning the societies into little America’s and/or consumers as opposed to allowing the people to develop their own authentic expression of human rights.

As radicals in the West the concept of the emancipation of women should not imply that Egyptian women should become “clone”‘ of American and Western women or that they will find empowerment in high heels and Hillary Clinton power suits. The message we should be sending to Egyptian men who want to remove women from the revolutionary struggle is that Egyptian women must be permitted to develop their own voice that defines what their role and participation in the Egyptian (and regional) uprising will be as partners in the struggle to rid their countries and the region of Western puppet-dictators (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, etc) and oppressive tyrants (Syria, Libya) and most importantly what their role A will be in the new society that will emerge from the collapse of these regimes.

At the root of the empowerment of women is men coming to terms with recognizing women as our partners in struggle, however difficult that may be, as well as some . of the built in gender privileges we may inherit . Recognizing this does not deny distinctions between men and women and the unique roles both genders play within society. What it means is recognizing that women can and should be given the opportunity to advance within society as far as their education and determination takes them. l believe this is all they ask if us, as well as a little encouragement.

If any Egyptian men are under the assumption that these are Western values or standards they should understand that human rights and women’s rights are not the sole possession of the West and discrimination and oppression of women is not exclusive to Middle Eastern societies and cultures as the West often comes up short in its protection of women’s ° rights and human rights in general. Also if Egyptian men have any doubts about the ability of women to participate in the push to transform Egyptian society they only need to look around at the role women are playing in the uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain, where women activists are leading the charge against authoritarian regimes. They should also be mindful of an Arabic proverb that says “A nation/tribe that does not honor its women is like a bird with a broken wing, it cannot take flight”. If Egyptian men continue to deny women as partners in the transformation of their society the Egyptian Uprising will never take flight from uprising to revolution. As the uprising of Tahrir now takes the turn of replacing an official state of repression with a far more insidious attitude of repression that ultimately betrays the spirit of Tahrir we all have to wonder where this leaves women in the new Egypt being created and whether or not women will find themselves alone and shut out of the new Egypt they helped usher in.

Robert Saleem Holbrook
175 Progress Dr.Waynesburg,
PA 15370