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Women in the Egyptian Revolution

By , Professor, Bishop's Unversity, Canada

During the Egyptian Revolution, women displayed keen leadership abilities and a nuanced understanding of their era’s political landscape. 

Most consider Israa Abdel Fatah and Asmaa Mahfouz as leaders of the Egyptian Revolution. In this article, I studied Asmaa Mahfouz’s calls to action for the Egyptian uprising found on her Facebook page. Additionally, I conducted an interview with Marlyn Tadros, a member of the Egyptian associational movement and a professor of Interactive Media at the New England Institute of Art in Boston, USA.

Asmaa Mahfouz (1985 - )

Even before the uprisings that shook the Arab world in 2011, Asmaa Mahfouz was already an experienced activist.  Mahfouz is a founding member of the April 6 Youth Movement, an organization created on Facebook to support workers from the industrial village of d’al-Mahalla el-Kubra during the strike of April 6, 2008.  She is also a member of the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution of 2011.  On January 18, 2011, Mahfouz posted her now famous video on her Facebook page mobilizing Egyptians to participate in a demonstration on January 25, 2011 at Tahrir Square (Mahfouz, 2011). Many consider Mahfouz’s video as one of the causes of the Egyptian Revolution. 

The following passages have been taken directly from Mahfouz’s video:

Four Egyptians have sacrificed themselves because they were tired of living in poverty, misery, and humiliation for the past thirty years.  Four Egyptians sacrificed themselves hoping that a Revolution would ignite like in Tunisia, and so the country would finally be a real country, that is to say, a country where there is liberty, justice, honor, and human dignity (...) Me, I am a girl, and I participated in the demonstrations, I posted information on the subject, and I waved a banner.  Only three young men joined me, while police cars and dozens of officers terrorized us. (Mahfouz, 2011)

Next, Mahfouz explained the purpose of the video:

I made this video to communicate a simple message: If we have any dignity left, I call on everyone to demonstrate on January 25, at Tahrir Square.  We want to live in this country with dignity. For this reason, we will demand for our human rights and our right to dignity. (Mahfouz, 2011)

Finally, Mahfouz invited all citizens to join her, particularly men, by reminding them of the code of honor and virility:

Each of you who considers himself a man, come demonstrate with me on January 25.  And those who say that girls who protest get humiliated and beaten, have the honor and the virility to protest with me on January 25.

Those who remain at home to follow the events on Facebook or in the media, instead of joining in the demonstration, contribute to our humiliation.  If you are a man, if you have dignity, if you have virility, come out in the streets, come protect me, and protect all the girls who protest (Mahfouz, 2011).

Mahfouz’s call to action raises several remarks to note.  First, the young woman displayed unquestionable courage.  When Mahfouz released her video without covering her face, the regime of terror still reigned in Egypt.  As a result, she was pursued, among other things, for “inciting violence,” and for “disturbing public order.”  However, the charges against Mahfouz were dropped due to the pressure from civil society and the international community.

Second, in her video and on her Facebook page, Mahfouz made demands for human dignity, for the fall of the corrupt police state of Hosni Mubarak, and for the victory of popular struggles around the globe.  These were not empty words.  On October 23, 2011, Mahfouz visited Liberty Plaza in New York to support protestors in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. 

When questioned about the subject, Mahfouz responded with the following statement: “Numerous American citizens supported the Egyptians during the Revolution.  We do the same for the whole world, because we believe that a different world is possible for us all. ” (Democracy Now, 2011)

Mahfouz has yet to deliver a statement on the rights of women specifically.  In fact, the gendered message made in her video suggests that she adheres to an essentialist view of the genders: “I am a girl and I participated in the demonstrations,” “if you are a man, if you have virility,” “come protect me, and protect all the girls who protest.”  Perhaps Mahfouz failed to realize that, with the exception of the three young men who joined her in the first demonstration, she exerts more strength, courage, and determination than most men, and in turn, that she was largely capable of protecting herself.

After the Revolution, Mahfouz continued to be involved in Egypt’s political scene.  On May 25, 2012, Mahfouz expressed her disappointment with the results of the first election on her Facebook page: “Too bad for the Revolution; too bad for the blood of the martyrs.” Similarly, on June 16, 2012, Mahfouz called on Egyptian citizens to boycott the election.  She accused both candidates, Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Chafik, of seeking to ensure the continuity of the military and dictatorial regime of Mubarak.

The Egyptian Revolution introduced numerous politically -savvy and politically-engaged women like Mahfouz to the world. 

Marlyn Tadros

An activist and researcher affiliated with Northeastern University’s Middle East Center, in Boston, USA, Marlyn Tadros specializes in human rights issues in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt.  Tadros joined the Revolution when the uprisings ignited in Egypt.
Women’s participation in the Egyptian Revolution. According to Marlyn Tadros, the Revolution began as a result of videos posted by Asmaa Mahfouz and Israa Abdel Fatah.  The activist and blogger Fatah broadcasted calls for the Revolution on the Internet and informed the television network al-Jazeera of the events first-hand (Israa, 2011).

Evidently, the major leaders of the Egyptian Revolution were women.  Women of all social classes participated in all levels of the Revolution: as protest leaders, as agents in the decision-making process, as and civil society organizers on the ground and as participants in the daily demontrations.  Women were harassed, beaten, and tortured as men were. Like many others, the 23 year-old singer Sally Zahran passed away from wounds inflicted upon her during a demonstration on January 29, 2011.

The Revolution was a culmination of numerous social struggles and popular protest movements over a long period of time.  For instance, previous struggles include the Kifaya (Enough) Movement created by George Ishak in 2004 for the purpose of democratically reforming the Egyptian political system, the April 6 Movement created in 2006, and the Said Khaled Movement created in June 2010 following the death of Khaled after he was tortured by police officers. 

Women’s demands during the Revolution. Because women tend to believe that the advent of a democratic state will ensure their human rights, female participants in the uprisings that shook Egypt expressed the same demands as their male counterparts—human dignity, social justice, and an end to Mubarak’s repressive regime—without making specific claims for women.

A number of incidents during the uprisings, however, indicate clearly how female protestors experienced forms of oppression unique from those experienced by their male counterparts: While the repressive regime oppressed both women and men, Egypt’s patriarchal structure resulted in a number of gender-specific forms of subordination that targeted women directly.  For example, the activist Samira Ibrahim revealed on March 9, 2011, that army officers systematically inflicted virginity tests upon the female protestors they arrested. 

Following Ibrahim’s testimony, a high officer admitted to administering the tests because “these girls were not like my daughter or yours ... these girls spent the night outside, in tents, with men.”  Further, while it remains unclear as to whether the woman in the blue bra, now known in Egypt by the honorary title Sit al banate (Miss Lady), was deliberately undressed by soldiers, we do know that the soldiers brutally beat her, dragged her, and as a result she was undressed.  Also, while women demonstrated on International Women’s Day to protest threats to their acquired rights, religious extremists freely harassed and insulted demonstrators without any intervention from army officers. 

Finally, at present, none of the ten members of the Constitutional Committee are women.  It is probably for this reason that article 75 of the amended Constitution subtly stipulates that the Egyptian President must be male.  Indeed, according to article 75, the Egyptian President may not marry a non-Egyptian woman.

In a culture of masculine power, the notion of a woman running for President appears to belong to purely theoretical discussions and debates.  That said, the television host and human rights activist, Buthaina Kamel, did in fact declare her candidacy for the 2011 presidential elections.  However, as Tadros regrettably explains, while Kamel emerged as the “Candidate of the Revolution” at this time, she failed to garner the required number of votes.  Kamel nonetheless remains the first woman to run for President in Egypt’s contemporary history. 

Assessment of the Revolution’s results and its consequences for women. It may be too early to determine specifically whether the Revolution resulted in a gain and/or a loss of rights for women and other citizens.  In the post-revolutionary era, however, and largely as a result of the uprising, women have recognized the fragility of their acquired rights.  For instance, on May 14, 2012, the Islamist Parliamentarian Nasser al-Shaker proposed a bill aimed at reintroducing the practice of excision, despite the abolishment of the practice in 2007 following the death of a young girl.  Women must mobilize once again, not with the intention of gaining further rights, but rather, for the purpose of maintaining their previously acquired rights.  Also, women and their fellow citizens shall learn to be more vigilant, and to recognize the religious extremism often hidden within social justice rhetoric. 

Finally, Egyptians, both women and men, are increasingly aware and knowledgeable of the political game, their rights, and their ability to express themselves successfully in the streets.  In this sense, democracy has finally taken root.

January 30, 2013


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Osire Glacier
By Osire Glacier

Dr. Osire Glacier is a professor at the Department of History and at the Department of Political Science and International Studies of Bishop's University (Sherbrooke, Canada). 

Read the other articles by Osire Glacier
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