CAIRO — When 19-year-old Nahal protested in Tahrir Square several weeks ago, she wasn't there to fight for her rights as a woman, but to fight for her rights as an Egyptian. "There are no differences between men and women here," she said. "We are all one hand."
Thousands of women echoed Nahal's sentiments as they raised brazen signs, led lively chants, and stood next to men in what some have deemed an unprecedented display of equality between the sexes in modern Egyptian history.
Although the movement that ended a dictator's 30-year reign in just 18 breathtaking days had little to do with feminist concerns, in the weeks following the country's uprising, women are saying the empowerment they felt during the demonstrations should be used to effect change for women themselves.
"In the square, I felt for the first time that women are equal to men," said activist and feminist Nawal El Saadawi. Now more than ever before, she says, there is a promising opportunity to act. "It's like I carried a burden on my back, and now I feel free."
Saadawi, a a spry octogenarian, has led the fight for women's rights in Egypt for decades. She was arrested and censored for her work under Anwar Sadat's and Hosni Mubarak's regimes. "Suzanne Mubarak silenced women, killed the feminist movement, and did nothing for us," she said, dismissing the former first lady's "National Council of Women" as little more than a PR campaign for the regime.
Women have long faced challenges in Egypt, from sexual harassment on the streets to prejudice at work to paternity laws upheld in the courtroom, Egyptians say.
As the country grapples with a transition to democracy, some worry that these problems could get worse with an Islamic revival. Many, however, do not see this as a real threat. "The younger generations of the Muslim Brotherhood believe in a secular constitution, believe in equality between men and women, equality between Muslim and Christians," Saadawi said. "So we are not afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood."