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Egyptian Women Play Vital Role In Anti-Mubarak Protests

  • Joseph Hammond

Women protesters, such as these on January 25, were among the first to take to the streets to demand the end of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Women protesters, such as these on January 25, were among the first to take to the streets to demand the end of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

When Samer Osman first received a Facebook invitation to join protests in central Cairo, she thought it was a joke.

Similar messages had circulated on the social-networking site before, and nothing came of them.

But on January 25, the day designated for large-scale protests in the capital's Tahrir Square, the 22-year-old Osman decided the opportunity to voice her anger at the government was too great to miss.

"I had had enough of this dictatorship," Osman says. "I've had enough of youth losing their dreams and hopes."

Her presence on Tahrir Square was a statement as powerful as any of the slogans heard that day. In joining the protests, Osman and other Egyptian women were clearly defying a conservative social landscape in which their involvement in the public sphere was clearly defined.

Women protesters hold up signs reading: "With one voice, the nation wants the regime out" at a demonstration in Cairo.
Before Osman and her friends left the house the morning of January 25, she could sense that Egypt's social restrictions were loosening.

"First of all it started at home when our mothers allowed us to go downstairs [to the streets] because always in Egypt it has always been the case that those who go to protests will go to prison and will go to jail," Osman says.

"So no simple [decent] mother would allow her daughter or son to go down to the protests. But this time mothers actually joined and they were willing to get arrested and they were willing to go to jail."

Female Inspiration

Ahmed, a male protester on Tahrir Square who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, says the role women played in the protests evolved far beyond initial expectations.

"Women are very vital. They have made the protests more ethical and have managed to keep it peaceful [in the first few days]," Ahmed says. "Now though, I have seen several girls injured in skirmishes. They also helped the protest remain in Tahrir [Square] for all these days."

Ahmed says he and other demonstrators took inspiration from women as they set about what they simply refer to as "the revolution."

Both Ahmed and Osman estimate that, in the first days of the protests against longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his regime, one in four of the protesters were women.

They represented a true cross-section of society, with all ages, social classes, and political and religious views on display. Young women dressed in the latest Western fashions stood alongside women in full niqab, the most conservative of religious coverings.

Muslims, Christians, and atheists alike voiced their concerns -- and not just against the regime. Many women were seen participating in pro-government demonstrations as well.

Women Reemerge In Egypt

As the situation turned increasingly violent, antigovernment supporters called on women and children to avoid Tahrir Square. But Osman notes that the visible impact women had in the early days of the protests was unprecedented.

"In Egypt we are a bit conservative," she says. "It doesn't happen for a girl to just to stay, to even stay late. But this time and this last week, actually, girls -- we spend nights in the street, we spend mornings in the streets, and we cleaned the streets like the men and we just we lived in the streets and this just something very, very new."

New, at least, to contemporary history. Gender roles and societal attitudes have varied throughout Egypt's history, but women have held prominent roles in the land of the Nile for thousands of years.

In the first century B.C., the Romans were markedly impressed with the leadership of Cleopatra, Egypt's last pharaoh. In the Islamic period, Shajar al-Durr was proclaimed sultana of Egypt and helped found the Mamluk dynasty, which ruled Egypt for centuries.

A women carries her daughter on her shoulders with the word "Masr," or Egypt, written on her forehead.
The first women served in the Egyptian Mejilis, or parliament, in 1957. But in subsequent years the role of Egyptian women in political life stagnated. A low point came in 2005, when only four women gained seats following parliamentary elections.

To address the situation, the ruling National Democratic Party pressed for affirmative-action legislation to ensure women a greater role. The government appointed Egypt's first female judge, university president, and cabinet ministers.

Controversial legislation passed in 2009 ensured that 64 seats in the 2010 parliamentary election would go to women, but had to overcome challenges from opposition groups before it was passed.

No Easy Life

Based on what they experienced during the recent protests, some women protesters say that a more accepting atmosphere is prevailing.

It was not uncommon for women to complain about harassment after participating in previous protests. But Osman says that was not the case during the recent demonstrations.

"Actually it was the first time in my life to go down the streets and to not be harassed at all. It was the perfect week. Really. it was utopia," she says. "The days of protests was utopia because not one man looked at me in a sexual way at all. Actually they were very, very protective of us."

A woman with her face painted in the colors of Egypt's flag takes part in the antigovernment protests.
With the Egyptian government's suspension of parliament last week, the prospect that the legislature might be reseated is cause for optimism for many women.

There are numerous obstacles for women to overcome, many of them economic.

Nour Fadl, a 24-year-old college graduate with a degree in logistics management, is one woman struggling to make ends meet.

"With the job I have now, a good [one] actually, one of the good paying jobs and it's in the private sector," she says. "It's not enough for me to get a place, start a family, and raise my kids with school and medicine, and with all the basic necessities of life. It's going to be hard."

Still, Egyptian women stress that their demands are the same as men's.

Lina Marah, another woman protesting on Tahrir Square sums up the mood on Cairo's streets by noting the political mood among the protesters: "Now there is no difference between man and woman."

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