The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Women
Women's safety and participation

I attended a day-long meeting in Cairo yesterday, facilitated by the NGO Safer World, addressing women’s safety and political participation in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The meeting was attended by activists as well as a few government representatives.

Although the situation varies quite a bit from one country to the other -- in Yemen the context is much more rural, for example, than in Egypt, and geographic isolation plays a big part in women’s security and participation -- there were many similarities. In all three countries, women are the victims of violence -- and of an ideological discourse that blames them for that very violence -- that intimidates them away from the public and political sphere.  Also in all three countries, women’s groups are extremely frustrated and angry with the Islamist groups and parties that have come to power since the uprisings, who they describe as “dictatorial” and accuse of wanting to undo progress on women’s rights. 

In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Islamist members of parliament and preachers have been saying grotesque things about women who were victims of gang rapes in Tahrir. The FJP has condemned some of the recent statements -- but only at the prodding of journalists, and even as some of its members have also expressed similar sentiments. 

President Morsi’s office sent a young female advisor on human rights and women’s rights to the meeting. She responded to the indignant questions of the activists with platitudes about the Freedom and Justice Party’s desire to listen before acting and the need not to demonize each other and to work together. In response to a question about the FJP’s position on lowering the age of marriage for girls, she said that the party had never advocated doing so and that there were “extreme” positions on all sides -- while some Islamists call for lowering the marriage age (to as low as 9), non-Islamists call for defending homosexuality. The claim prompted one activist to ask: “Why are you always bringing up homosexuality when we’re discussing women’s rights?”

The presidential advisor also noted President Morsi’s recent Women’s Initiative, a vague and hastily put together initiative that does not include any of the country’s prominent feminist groups and that at this point seems to be little more than Facebook page. The fact that this initiative took place just days after the FJP caught flak for its strongly worded dissent from a recent declaration by the UN Commission on the Status of Women does not seem coincidental. 

“Where can there be a meeting point between civil society and government?” a moderator asked. I’m not optimistic about that meeting point being found in Egypt today, especially as the Shura Council (which was elected by 10% of the population, remember, and whose original mandate did not include passing laws) prepares an extremely restrictive NGO law that seems designed to bring civil society to heel. 

It’s worth noting that it is not only Islamists who have misogynistic attitudes. The army also victimized and marginalized women. Non-Islamist parties’ platforms do not include measures to curtail women’s rights, nonetheless they do very little to empower women within their ranks and tend to view women’s rights as a means to criticize the Brotherhood. Women were under-represented in all leadership positions and in politics under Mubarak, and they were the victims of sexual and political violence. These are not new phenomena. 

That said the FJP’s record on women is abysmal. An article criminalizing gender discrimination against women was removed from the Islamist-drafted constitution; Islamists have consistently opposed a quota for women in elections; on the question of women’s safety, Islamists employ a paternalistic discourse in which they call for women to be protected (and controlled) by individual men, rather than guaranteed a simple, gender-blind right to be visible, active participants in cities, societies and political events. 

The FJP also does not trust and does not consult with the National Women’s Council (the government body established to deal with women’s rights) or with any of the country’s well-regarded, vocal feminist organizations. Yes, some of these organization are "elite," some had contact with Suzanne Mubarak (they could hardly afford not to) and some took foreign funding to promote largely empty women's empowerment programs (what does it mean to encourage women's political participation in the context of rigged elections?). But the vast majority of these organizations have been doing serious and ground-breaking work for decades; some activists put themselves in extraordinary personal danger to protect female protesters these days. Any initiative to discuss or address women's rights that excludes the country's seasoned activists and NGOs is bankrupt. 

And any political party that is serious about women’s safety will speak out strongly and consistently against all violence against women -- regardless of its political context -- and will condemn any attempt to blame the victim. It it will also support a quota, which experiences around the world have proven is one of the only ways to initiate large numbers of women into political life -- and which was used in Tunisia, for example, ensuring a significant female representation in that country’s constituent assembly. 

 

 

 

 

On "Why do they hate us?" and its critics

FP's "sex issue" coverThe piece below was contributed by friend of the blog Parastou Hassouri, who has been living in Cairo since 2005 and focuses on issues of gender and migration. She is currently a consultant with International Civil Society Action Network's MENA program, which examines the intersection of women's rights, peace and security.

Given that Mona El Tahawy has, for at least a decade now, written about Islam and gender in the Middle East, and primarily for an English-speaking (read “Western”) audience, it is a bit surprising that in her recent piece in Foreign Policy’s sex issue, she would repeat so many of the same ideas and fall into the same traps into which others before her have fallen, providing many a commentator and academic with an opportunity to pounce upon her within hours of the piece’s publication.

El Tahawy’s piece reads like a catalogue of horrors, as she cites example after example of some of the more egregious instances of violations of women’s rights: from Saudi Arabia, where guardianship laws infantilize women, to Yemen, where the practice of child marriage is still all too common, and to her native Egypt, where shortly after the uprising which ousted Husni Mubarak, female protesters detained by the military were subjected to humiliating virginity tests.  In the overarching question hanging over the piece – “why do they hate us” – El Tahawy never quite identifies who “they” are, but she does seem to place the cause of this misogyny squarely within conservative religious doctrine now being promoted by some of the political actors that have found a voice in the aftermath of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 

The responses to El Tahawy’s piece came fast and furious. I will admit to only having read about twenty of them, though I am sure there are dozens more.  Even before reading the responses, I could have guessed what most would say, for indeed El Tahawy’s piece is reductive and essentialist, at the same time that it generalizes and perpetuates some of the very stereotypes individuals like her have long struggled to debunk. 

However, El Tahawy’s piece and the responses to it get caught in the same circular debates that feminist theorists have been trying to address for some time, and highlight the significance of two theories in particular:  intersectionality and the double-bind. 

Intersectionality, a feminist sociological theory first highlighted by African-American feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, examines how various biological and social categories such as race, gender, and class, and politics interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systemic social inequality.  Intersectionality led feminists into also writing about the “double bind,” a situation wherein an individual (or group) finds herself struggling to reconcile the sometimes conflicting demands of multiple identities. 

It is significant that the theory of intersectionality was first crystallized in the writings of Crenshaw, who, as an African-American feminist, wrote about how the experience of oppression for black women in America differed from that of white women. Since then, Asian, Latina, and Native American feminist writers have also gone on to examine the ways in which the intersection of race/ethnicity, class and sex (among other factors) contribute to the subordination of women in complex and distinct ways. 

The most salient criticism of El Tahawy’s piece is that she reduces the complexity of factors contributing to the marginalization of women across the Arab world to the question of hate.  Clearly, hate alone, even hate propagated by conservative religious dogma cannot explain the violations of women’s rights.  As Leila Ahmed notes in her critique of El Tahawy’s piece, feminists have debated the sources of women’s oppression and found it in many places:  patriarchy, religion, class, imperialism, race, among others. 

It is impossible to look at the situation of women across the Middle East and other Muslim countries and not see how increasing militarization strengthens patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies that have  mutually reinforcing effects on the increased subordination of women and the propagation of masculinities.   One cannot ignore the impact of globalization on economic, social and cultural rights as well as restrictions on civil and political rights.  The continued growth in the power and influence of the private sector, bolstered by states pursuing neoliberal economic policies has pushed many women (and men) into the margins of society, and into irregular migration networks where they are exploited.  After all, the uprisings in the Arab world have been a cry for socio-economic justice.  They have also been a cry against authoritarian regimes, which also reinforce gender and other social hierarchies.  Religious fundamentalism, which across all religions, is premised on absolute monolithic approaches, is just one the factors which also strengthens patriarchy. 

And let’s not forget that patriarchy, which I, like many feminists define as the privileging of male power in all forms of social relations, is a system in which men and women participate.  Some of the responses to Mona El Tahawy have raised the issue that women participate in some of the practices which she criticizes, for example Female Genital Mutilation.  Or, as one commentator noted, women, just as much as men, have voted Islamists into power.  But women’s participation in these activities does not make them any less patriarchal. 

Some of the other criticisms of El Tahawy’s piece illustrate the dilemma of the “double bind” that African-American and other feminists have also faced. For instance, when they write about their experiences, African-American feminists often find themselves caught between confronting the patriarchy within African-American communities, and defending their African-American brothers from the broader racism that exists in American society. 

Similarly, women who identify as Islamic feminists often find themselves in this bind, as they try to reconcile their feminism and religious identity, and also defend their religion from Islamophobia. 

Feminists like El Tahawy who write about women’s subordination in the Middle East, and the critics responding to her also fall into this double bind if they are not careful in how they phrase their message.  On the one hand, El Tahawy is accused of playing into Western imperialist agendas.  On the other hand, her critics are in danger of becoming apologists who are pawns of their native country’s patriarchy.  

Of the other criticisms of El Tahawy’s piece, some did not really engage the substance of her arguments, and came more out of defensiveness about generalizations that she made about Middle Eastern culture. 

The criticisms that were made of El Tahawy herself (especially given her vocal support of laws banning the burqa/niqab in some European countries), the language she used (the very title “why do they hate us” evoking post 9/11 discourse and reinforcing an East-West dichotomy), her airing of views in Foreign Policy (a concern that goes beyond merely the airing of one’s dirty laundry, but has to do with the fact that Western powers have in fact used the pretext of saving oppressed women to justify their military interventions in the Middle East, with disastrous results for women), the issue of representation (who is she to talk for us, and the danger, especially of an Arab woman expressing such views and lending them more authenticity), and the images that accompanied the piece (which did tap into the worst orientalist stereotypes) are all well and good, but do not address the underlying arguments she is making. 

Some, who felt El Tahawy’s claim to representation was false because they did not see themselves as “hated” or “oppressed” (this was especially the case for those who had participated in protests), accused El Tahawy of focusing too much on women as victims and robbing women of any agency. 

The issue of agency has been a salient one in feminist theory:  in law, in customary practice, and in cultural stereotypes, women's selfhood has been systematically subordinated, diminished, and belittled, when it has not been outright denied. And as such, much of feminist theory concerns itself with reclaiming this selfhood – the idea being that excess emphasis on women as the “other” that is “acted upon” rather than acting does more to perpetuate their subjugation. 

Over the years, many accounts of women in the Muslim/Arab world, especially in mainstream media, have portrayed women as “objects” lacking any power and agency.  For those of us who live in the region or have spent significant time here, and who know that the reality is far more complex, these depictions are particularly frustrating.  Perhaps El Tahawy’s piece is too focused on violations, as opposed to the ways in which women are challenging them.  However, she does end her piece by citing Samira Ibrahim, the only woman who filed a lawsuit after she was subjected to virginity tests by the Egyptian army, and who she quotes, “They want to silence us; they want to chase women back home.  But we’re not going anywhere.”  El Tahawy’s listing of the violations and citing of Ibrahim is a call to arms – she is specifically calling upon men and women to rise up against these practices.   

So, where does this leave women?  Both El Tahawy and her critics presumably all ultimately care about the dignity and rights of women in the Arab world and everywhere. 

Instead of personal attacks, which are unproductive, and criticisms that do not address the substance of her arguments, it would have been more satisfying to see more commentators engage El Tahawy on the actual merits of her arguments and the underlying causes for women’s situation in the Middle East.  To do so, both sides should bear in mind the role that intersectionality and the double bind play and learn from the experience of other feminists who have also dealt with these issues. 

 

Being a woman IT professional in Saudi Arabia

This morning, Saudi (update: she was born in Saudi but is not Saudi) IT professional Ruba al-Omari tried for the umpteenth time to attend an IT event in Jeddah. Most of the time she's tried this before, she had to be segregated or what she calls "IT mutawwas" would ask her to leave. She tweeted about her experience, and I Storified it below. I thought it illustrated rather well the ordinary struggles of a woman in the kingdom of backwardness. 

 [h/t: Ellen Knickmeyer]

A sister on the Brothers

Don't miss this review of a new book critical of the Muslim Brotherhood's attitude to women, written by a former Muslim Sister. Noha Hennawy has the story at al-Masri al-Youm:

As the Muslim Brotherhood strives to project the image of a moderate and democratic political organization, a book featuring the angry account of a former member has hit the market.

"The Memoirs of a Former Sister: My Story with the Muslim Brotherhood" is the testimony of Intissar Abdel Moneim, an Alexandria-based novelist and author. With a compelling style and sharp language, the book takes the reader on a journey exploring the internal politics of the 83-year-old organization, placing special emphasis on discrimination against female members.

Throughout her work, Abdel Moneim decries the sisters’ internalization of oppression as women are socialized in a way that compels them to accept male dominance within the organization — and the household.

The book takes Hassan al-Banna to task for his views on polygamy, women's role in society, etc. and recounts the author's experience as a MB activist.

She goes on to criticize Banna's insistence that men and women should be separated. With a scathingly sarcastic tone, the author argues that Banna’s view portrays humans as if they are mere animals who have little control over their impulses.

“You cannot by any logic perceive all people as mere female and male sex organs that roam the streets looking for the moment of intercourse like cats," the book reads. Abdel Moneim attributes Banna’s rigid outlook to his rural background.

This outlook still shapes the group’s perception of women’s roles within the organization and in the society at large. It justifies why the Muslim Sisters' division cannot operate independently from the Brothers, why no woman is admitted into the group's highest bodies, namely the Shura Council and the Guidance Bureau, and why the group will not acknowledge a woman's right to rule, according to the book.

Read the whole thing.

A good read at a time when some MB leaders have voiced opinions that women should not take part in protests (even though some women who support the MB have been at the forefront of the recent violent protests).

On this topic, you should read the work (less hostile to MB patriarchy) of my friend Omayma Abdel Latif. Here Carnegie report on the Muslim Sisters is probably the most in-depth recent thing written on the subject.

Women, "honor" and public space

This is a guest post by friend of the blog Parastou Hassouri, who has been living in Cairo since 2005, has taught international refugee law at the American University in Cairo and specializes in issues of gender and migration: 

Earlier this month, what was perhaps the biggest demonstration by women in Egypt in several decades took place. Thousands marched through Cairo, protesting the abuse of women protesters by soldiers. It was followed by a mass Friday demonstration in support of women, called the “Friday to Restore Honor.”

The show of support was impressive. But the title “restoring honor” was perhaps an unfortunate one in a society like Egypt, where the concept of honor has been used to repress women and push them out of the public sphere.

As the Egyptian feminist organization, Nazra, said in their excellent statement on the issue, this is not about women’s honor.  What must be protected here is not the honor of women, but rather their right to protest and be politically active alongside men as equal partners in this critical phase of Egypt’s history.

A much-repeated slogan during the December 20 women’s march was “Egypt’s women are a red line,” an echo of what has been said about the military since the January 25 Revolution – that criticism of the military is a line not to be crossed.  However, using this same line to describe the treatment of women is uncomfortably reminiscent of gendered discourse in post-colonial contexts about nations reclaiming their honor or dignity in response to transgressions against their women.  It reeks of a paternalism that in effect ends up marginalizing the very people it means to protect. 

The military’s brutality against all protesters is intended to discourage further protest.  However, the public humiliation of female protesters in particular is intended to drive home a very specific message:  Honorable women do not protest out in the streets.  Men of honor do not let their mother, wives, daughters, or sisters go out in the streets. The army’s use of sexual assault and humiliation has taken place with their full knowledge of the severe social stigma associated with these kinds of attacks.

It’s not just the military that uses these tactics, but also their supporters in the media. The most overt and repulsive example was a rant by TV commentator Tawfiq Okasha that wrapped together condescension, sexism and implicit threats into a message that women should know their place and men should keep them there. He addressed two of the most prominent women activists and sneeringly told them he had men for them to marry – an army draftee and a Saidi farmer –who would teach them “how to love Egypt.” He didn’t bother with issues of honor; his only intention was to stifle women’s very right to speak out on issues concerning the nation.

It is easy to dismiss these comments as the ravings of counter-revolutionary elements who do not represent the majority.  However, given the generally conservative mindset prevalent in Egypt, particularly where issues of sex and gender are concerned, it is important to understand that these comments are an obnoxious manifestation of an underlying ideology that advocates keeping women out of the public sphere.  It is also important to place such statements in context.  They are being made in a political climate that is seeing very few women elected to parliament in the current elections, and the ascendance of ultra-conservative Islamist parties that advocate strict gender segregation. 

Last week’s marches show that women can try to take back the concept of honor and move beyond it to the real issue of rights.

Last week’s march also stands in sharp contrast to the unsuccessful attempt to hold a women’s rights protest on the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day last March – a month or so after Mubarak’s ouster – which had a poor turnout, and ended with groups of men harassing and shouting down the few women who had bothered to show.  By contrast, the December 20 march was accompanied by a cordon of supportive and protective men. 

It is interesting that previous calls for women’s rights were met with responses ranging from “this is not the time” to outright hostility.  However, the issue of honor galvanized a much stronger outpouring of protest, focused on one particular instant of brutality, that of “the woman with the blue bra.”  Photos and videos captured soldiers dragging a female protester, beating her, and pulling up her robes and shirt, exposing her bare midriff and bra before a soldier stomps brutally on her chest.

As shocking as the violence displayed in this clip was, one cannot help but assume that it was the image of the unidentified woman’s bare torso and her bra that outraged most people – more so than the brutal stomping – and led so many to protest.  After all, images of military police brutalizing male and some female protesters have been ubiquitous for weeks – downloaded onto YouTube and shared via social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.  But those images have not had quite the same effect.

Although the incident has garnered much indignation, there have also been detractors.  Comments have been made, by SCAF and their supporters, ranging from justifying the attacks due to the woman’s criticism of the military, to arguing that the footage was taken out of context, to discrediting the whole footage and saying that it was fabricated, and finally to claiming that the young woman was an agent provocateur who entrapped the military police. 

Women being brutalized and sexually humiliated during protests are nothing new in Egypt.  In fact, it was a tactic used by Mubarak’s security forces, most infamously during protests on May 25, 2005 – a day activists later dubbed “Black Wednesday” – when hired thugs sexually assaulted protesters, including women journalists covering the protests, and ripped off their clothing, while security forces idly stood by and let it happen. 

Abuses by Mubarak’s security forces were expected, and if Egyptians were outraged by the events of May 25, 2005, those assaults did not lead to quite the same outpouring of outrage.  No mass march of women followed.  This was likely in part due to the fact that at that period, footage of such incidents did not circulate quite as widely and rapidly as it does now, and so many were not aware of them.  Also, the political environment at that time did not allow for such large organized protests.  And so, most Egyptians had no choice but to keep their indignation to themselves, and swallow it as part and parcel of the injustices of the previous regime.

The January 25 revolution was supposed to usher in a new era, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who took control of the country after Mubarak’s ouster were initially greeted as saviors. 

However, since Mubarak’s ouster, SCAF have continued many of the regime’s former policies, leaving the emergency laws in place, continuing military trials for civilians, and responding to protests with lethal force. 

In their brutality, they have not spared women.  Shortly after Mubarak’s resignation, human rights organizations broke the news that some of the women who been detained following the military’s violent dispersal of protesters from Tahrir Square on March 9 were given “virginity tests” and threatened with prostitution charges (among other forms of abuse). 

When confronted with the reports, one military officer told a reporter that these women were “not like your daughter or mine,” but rather were the type of women who had camped out in tents with male protesters.  He added that the tests were conducted to counter any eventual accusations from the women that they were raped while in custody – implying that only virgins are credible victims of rape. 

Like the Mubarak-era assaults, these were also intended to send a message about the type of women who would participate in protests – suggesting that any thing that happens to them is fair game. 

One of the victims of the virginity tests, Samira Ibrahim, has had the courage to speak about her ordeal and has filed a lawsuit against the military police. The court hearing her case issued an injunction against future tests, but the real challenge of punishing the perpetrator and obtaining compensation for Ibrahim lies ahead. 

Despite testimony from women like Samira Ibrahim and others, the virginity test issue did not lead to the same outrage as the “blue bra” incident.  I even heard some men and women deny the tests happened.  Some still want to believe in SCAF as a force for good.  Perhaps it is because these tests happened behind closed doors – without the evidence staring people right in the face.

The “blue bra” incident, having happened out in the open, should in fact confirm the truth of what women like Samira Ibrahim have been saying. If the military officers have no qualms about humiliating protesters in plain sight, one can only imagine what they are willing and able to do behind closed doors. 

But the more women like Samira Ibrahim come forward and talk about their violation, the less effective sexual violence as a tool of suppressing women becomes.  And the more women insist that they have a place in the public sphere and participate forcefully, whether in protests, campaigns or other activities, the weaker the voices trying to drown them out will become. 

Egypt: An end to virginity tests

Samira Ibrahim, who won first part of her case against the Egyptian military's

From Hossam Bahgat, the director of the excellent NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights:

I have good news (gasp). This morning the Court of Administrative Justice ruled in our favor in the case against army chief for subjecting female protesters to "virginity tests". Court admitted the case and issued an urgent injunction against any future "tests". We now continue the fight to get criminal accountability and compensation for the women.

The above pic is of Samira Ibrahim, a victim of the "virginity tests" last March who took the military to court.

Read more about the case in Daily News Egypt.

The counter-revolution and women

The ugliness and ridiculousness of the army and their defenders' arguments this week has been hard to countenance. 

Much of the debate has centered on the shocking image of the young woman dragged, half undressed and mercilessly beaten in the street by soldiers. The denial, misogyny and hostility on display has been in direct proportion to the impossibility of defending this conduct. 

A sheikh with the Gamaa Islamiya exemplified the worst of Islamist bigotry and hypocrisy by telling Al Ahram a few days ago that "real Egyptian men don't follow April 6 women into the street" and if people are concerned for women's honor they should worry about girls sleeping overnight in tents with boys and dancing.

The focus on women -- their safety, their "honor," their participation -- has brought out the worst in the counter-revolutionaries. In the pro-army Abbasiya protest yesterday, people chanted: "From the ladies of Egypt to Ghada.." -- addressing this brave young woman, beaten by the army -- "Your end will be annihilation." They also reiterated the perversely common argument that the woman in the blue bra entrapped soldiers into beating and stripping her in the street. The event was headlined by Tawfeeq Okasha, a weird populist TV station owner (and former Mubarak supporter) who judging by this video -- in which he creepily tells activists Nawara Negm and Asmaa Mahfouz that he has guys all ready and lined up to marry them and teach them to calm down and love their country -- is a raving psychopath and misogynist. Just for good measure, the Abbaseya demo also reportedly featured posters of popular private TV channel presenters Mona Shazly, Reem Maged and others with nooses around their necks. 

The loons in Abbaseya are an extreme end of popular opinion (albeit one that is being dangerously encouraged). Many other Egyptians are shamed, shocked and scared by the army's violence towards citizens, and (although I think by now almost everyone knows that something terrible happened Downtown last week) would prefer to believe that it didn't happen -- or that those it happened to somehow deserved it. Egypt is still fighting the same battle, a year on: a battle over whether all its citizens deserve safety and dignity and whether those who are in power can be held accountable. The denial and incoherent rage being directed at protesters -- and at those women who, according to these arguments, chose to embarrass themselves and their country by getting themselves nearly killed in the street by soldiers -- shows how difficult and threatening this kind of change will be. 

The women's march

It's heartening to finally see some uplifting, positive news in these depressing times. The march of around 10,000 women that has taken place today is precisely the type of unexpected turnaround that has made the Egyptian uprising a success at various points this year. It comes out of nowhere and recharges the depleted batteries of activists. It reminds the protestors that their rage will not be sated by throwing stones but only by seeing the solidarity of their fellow men and women. It is the type of event, once it percolates throught the late night TV talk shows and the newspapers, can actually deliver change and political pressure. For those who thought the protests went astray in the last few days by becoming more about revenge than demands, it is a welcome correction.

The SCAF of course rushed to produce an apology after its agents in the media began spreading rumors that the photo of the woman who was attacked by soldiers several days ago was doctored. Just like earlier today it suddenly announced it would punish officers involved in the "virginity tests" and the Maspero killings. But I doubt people will settle for show trials.

The Associated Press:

CAIRO (AP) -- Thousands of Egyptian women marched in the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, protesting abuse by soldiers who dragged women by the hair, stomped on them and stripped one half naked on the street while cracking down on anti-military protesters in scenes that shocked many in the conservative society.

The march was a rare protest by women and its numbers - about 10,000 by some estimates - underlined the depth of anger over the images from the fierce crackdown over the past five days on protesters demanding the ruling military step down immediately.

Even before the protest was over, the ruling military council issued an unusual apology for what it called "violations" - a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.

Thousands of women denounce military violence against female protesters:

CAIRO: Thousands of Egyptian women took to the streets of downtown Cairo on Tuesday denouncing the excessive use of violence and sexual abuse by the Egyptian army against female protesters, drowning out the relevance of an official apology to "Egypt's great women" published on SCAF's Facebook page four hours after the march started.

The march, which included about 6,000 women and around 2,000 men, began in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's revolution, and headed to the Journalists' Syndicate. Protesters had a loud and clear message for Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces: "Egypt's women are the red line."

Mothers, daughters and grandmothers marched hand in hand chanting against the military, calling for their fellow Egyptians on the streets and in their homes to join them in demanding that the military step down immediately.

All this sorts of reminds me of a column I wrote on January 1, about women leading the (then not happening) uprisings.

Egyptian women and the revolution

Photo by Rena Effendi

I have a piece in Newsweek magazine about Egyptian women and the revolution. I started working on this in March. Perhaps because I was focusing on the topic, I've been particularly aware of women's absence from the post-Mubarak decision-making process.

The morning of January 28 I was sitting in a room of activists, and quite a few of them were women. There were women in the street that day, and there were a lot of women in Tahrir.  But women have been largely missing, not just from the two most influential organizations of the post-Mubarak era -- the army and the Muslim Brotherhood -- but from opinion columns and the podiums of press conferences, from the courtrooms and of course from all the positions that have yet to open to them, such as being governors or university deans or heads of state institutions. We have one female minister, Fayza Abul Naga, and she is a Mubarak hold-over. (The one area where women are quite influential is the media, with female TV talk show presenters becoming quite well-known public personalities). 

Discussing women's rights in the Arab world is always complicated -- there are so many condescending clichés to avoid. Right now, women are just one group of people in Egypt -- alongside the young, religious minorities, the working poor -- who have yet to see any change. There is a question as to whether it makes sense to focus on women's rights rather than on political/socio-economic rights for all. Then again, women's demands always get shunted to the side with this argument ("It's not the right time"); and I suspect that a change in gender attitudes is part of a larger, necessary change in power dynamics that is key to democratization. What's remarkable (and a remarkable difficulty for Egyptian feminists) is that the very fact that women face discrimination and need to fight for greater rights is so virulently denied or so widely dismissed -- including by many women themselves.

Words of Women from the Egyptian revolution

The is the trailer for a documentary film titled Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution. They're fundraising to complete the project. It sheds light on the things many Egyptian women did on the front lines and behind the scenes to support the uprising. It's a nice idea at a time when many complain that women have largely receded from the post-revolution political scene, notably in the formation of political parties.

Egypt's first female presidential candidate

Recently, I met Buthayna Kamel, TV-presenter-turned-activist and the first woman to announce she will run for the presidency her. Here's a bit about it from a profile I wrote up for The Daily Beast:

She, like women across the country, was an enthusiastic participant in the January 25 Revolution.

“Women are always at the front of revolutions,” she says. “But then men want to take all the results.”

But, she insists, “I’m not just women’s candidate. I am a candidate for all of Egypt.” She is running for “the peasants, the workers, the women, the handicapped, the Copts, the Nubians, the Bedouin”—all of whom are marginalized, all of whom have been denied their rights. To change women’s status requires changing all of Egyptian society, she says, learning to “accept others and accept criticism.”

In the piece, I discuss Kamel's recent appearance on State TV, which led to accusations of "insulting the army." I mistakenly say the show was pulled off the air. Actually, it ordered off the air but the presenter continued to the end, when he told the audience he'd been receiving calls from the director of Radio and TV to shut down, and wasn't sure he would be on the air again(!)--watch the end of this clip. As to what got Kamel in trouble, it appears to be her ballsy comments in the beginning of the program, in which she condemns the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for their dealing with the sectarian clashes in Imbaba, for torturing demonstrators and for carrying out military trials of civilians while Mubarak regime figures have yet to be prosecuted. 

International Women's Day in Cairo

I have an account of what happened with the women's protest in Tahrir today up at The Daily Beast.

Protesters were attacked and driven out of the square, accused of being “foreigners” (quite a few foreign women and journalists were present), and had their flyers and posters torn up.

There was tension from the beginning, with throngs of male hecklers outnumbering the hundreds of female protesters.

“A man tried to rule us and failed—will we let a woman?” an middle-aged man yelled at the crowd of Egyptian women holding banners in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The men around him burst out laughing.

Egyptian women had called for a demonstration demanding that their demands and rights be taken into greater consideration by the military currently running the country.

People's impressions of the protest varied a lot, in terms of atmosphere. I left right before things turned ugly, and didn't sense they would. There were lots of obnoxious hecklers, but I actually witnessed quite a few substantive and civil arguments (no one was aggressive to me). I actually thought that depressing as many of the men's point of view was, it was at least a good thing that people were arguing these issues openly. I was very troubled to hear about the violence. I would say -- and this is purely a strategic observation, not meant in any way to blame -- that the organizers might have been better served by biding their time and getting a much larger coalition of supporters involved (where were the opposition parties? why wasn't this publicized by the Kullena Khaled Said group?) so that the protest might have been larger and not mainly made up of women's rights activists. I hope this doesn't discourage them from organizing something else in the future. 

On Lara Logan and Egypt

I wrote a piece for the Daily Beast yesterday trying to put the sad attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in context. (Logan was reportedly "beaten and sexually assaulted" by a crowd the night Egyptians were celebrating Mubarak's resignation). 

A lot of US coverage has been, as far as I can tell, insensitive, sensationalistic or ridiculous (or some combination thereof). I have read incredibly inhumane comments focused on Logan's good looks; her supposed naivete in going into the crowds (never mind that she was just doing her job); and the ways in which she will supposedly milk this for her career (yeah, I wish it had happened to me, what a great way to advance). 

Then there are those who have taken this incident as an excuse to trot out their (non-existent) knowledge of the status of women in Islamic countries. Ironically, even as some right-wing commentators say Logan should have expected this in a country full of Muslim "savages," they reveal the misogyny of American culture by looking for ways to blame the victim of a sexual attack. 

Anyway, what happened to Logan is terrible--and it highlights the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt, which Egyptian women have been fighting for some time now. They may make more progress now that so many of them participated so fully in, and felt so empowered by, their country's revolution.

Recent reporting

I've written something for The National, looking back over the blur of the last two weeks, and trying to peak forward. I almost thought it had become obsolete last night--but as it turns out, we are still in no-man's-land. This is how it starts: 

Our ruler for the last 30 years/His name is Hosni Mubarak/His description?/He's stupid, he doesn't get it/He's blind, he doesn't see/ He's deaf, he doesn't hear/If you find him/Throw him in the nearest garbage can/Set him on fire..." A tall man in a jellabiya and a traditional turban sang these lines in Tahrir Square one night last week, accompanied by a small crowd keeping the beat on pieces of scavenged metal. It was just one of dozens of impromptu chants ricocheting across the square that has become Egypt's revolutionary headquarters. When I asked someone in the group who the singer was, he answered, with finality: "An Egyptian citizen."

Hana Lotfi, a 35-year-old mother who was there with her husband and children, approached me. "The people have been quiet too long," she said. "And being quiet has done us no good. So we die here - we're already dying outside, what's the difference?"

Egypt has changed, it goes without saying. Things are being done and being said, on the airwaves and on the street, that would have been unimaginable last month. The nation is split, wavering, living "in two different time zones" - the present and the post-Mubarak - as one local academic recently put it.

After two weeks of street protests and violent clashes that have left hundreds dead and thousands injured, Egyptians are waiting - uneasily, expectantly, stubbornly - to find out if they are living through a stalled uprising or a real revolution.

(Thanks to AUC law professor Amr Shalakany, whose brilliant column was an inspiration).

Also, at The World website, you can hear me talk to some of the many women--long-time and first-time protesters-- who have taken to the streets since January 25th. I am still amazed and impressed by how many women here have fearlessly taken to the streets.