Democracy Lab

The Women of Tahrir Square Fight Back

The revolution in Egypt isn’t over -- at least as long as female revolutionaries have anything to say about it.

On Friday, July 6, Egyptian women -- and not a few Egyptian men -- will be marching once again to the heart of Egypt's revolution. The demonstration could fizzle. But it could also become a key moment in the course of the country's revolution.

The marchers will be protesting against sexual harassment, a widespread problem on the streets of the Arab world's most populous country. But their protest will be aimed not at the government or the army or the Islamists, but specifically at Tahrir Square itself, the psychological -- and physical -- fulcrum of the rebellion that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Over the past few weeks, women have been the victims of a series of incidents of sexual violence at Tahrir. The young journalist Natasha Smith published a detailed account of the assault she endured at the hands of a male mob last month. Though her story was widely publicized, spreading far and wide across the Internet, it was far from the only case. Other journalists have chronicled what some are describing as "Egypt's sexual harassment epidemic."

The problem is, sadly, not new. American TV reporter Lara Logan first brought it to international attention last year, when she revealed her own harrowing experience with a Tahrir mob. But the phenomenon she described was already painfully familiar to her Egyptian counterparts. A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR) found that 83 percent of Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed at some point in their lives. Perhaps even scarier, 62 percent of the men surveyed admitted to having participated in acts of harassment. (ECWR activists have since created an online map to track harassment cases.)

Lately, however, it seems that the assaults at Tahrir have been increasing in frequency and viciousness -- a trend that is prompting this latest attempt to reclaim the square as a safe place for women. It's a bit of a gamble. A similar effort to protest harassment last month ended in a flurry of attacks on the women who participated. For that reason, the female demonstrators this time around will be accompanied by a protective screen of male companions -- a dreary commentary on the situation of women in Egypt.

But the story doesn't end there. You can rest assured that Egyptian women won't allow themselves to be typecast as victims. Indeed, it's important to remember that the course of Egypt's revolution would be unthinkable without the participation of women, who were an integral part of the protests in Tahrir -- and elsewhere in the country -- from the very start. Thousands of female demonstrators joined the crowds, often working as organizers, nurses, and even security guards. Young activist Asmaa Mahfouz made the video that brought thousands of protesters to the square at a crucial moment in the revolution. Journalist Shahira Amin galvanized the protests when she publicly announced her resignation from a state TV broadcaster in February 2011. Amid the turmoil of the uprising against Mubarak, some women re-established the long-dormant Feminist Union, adding another notable voice to Egypt's chorus of civil society groups.

The centrality of their role in the revolution is one more reason why we should pay attention to the protests against sexual harassment. They come at a watershed moment in Egypt's revolution. Egypt's first popularly elected president -- Mohamed Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- has just taken his oath of office. His election has left many women uncertain about their future status in a country with an Islamist head of state.

"[Women's] hopes for a better future have grown dimmer with a rise in conservatism following the victory of Islamists in Egypt's first post-uprising parliamentary elections," wrote Shahira Amin, the former TV journalist, in a recent article. "Recent news has highlighted an alarming rise in the numbers of women subjected to sexual harassment and assault." Activist Randa El Tahawy has noted that women have been largely excluded from the process of drafting a new Egyptian constitution, and that social pressures still make it hard for them to compete for jobs as judges or politicians.

Activists worry that some in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) actively oppose the criminalization of female circumcision (though the party officially denies it). Members of the Islamist-dominated parliament (since disbanded by a military decree) abolished previously existing parliamentary quotas for women. Islamist lawmakers also discussed abolishing a Mubarak-era law that gave women the right to divorce -- a view advocated even by one of the FJP's leading female members, Azza al-Garf. Meanwhile, it's just been announced that Egyptians can soon look forward to their very own satellite TV channel for women, one in which all the presenters and newsreaders perform their roles fully veiled.

It's worth noting, of course, that many Egyptian women wholeheartedly support the Brotherhood and its call for the upholding of "Islamic values." Sondos Asem, a senior female member of the FJP, acknowledges some of the concerns raised by secular feminists and says that the party has a "holistic plan" for improving Egyptian society -- including active support for "female entrepreneurship." Morsi has pledged to appoint a woman as one of his two vice presidents -- an implicit acknowledgment, perhaps, that he must build political bridges to the millions of Egyptians who didn't give him their votes. (So far there's no indication who the leading candidate for that job might be -- or whether she might turn out to be a headscarf-wearing Brotherhood loyalist.)

What's clear is that the mindset exemplified by the brutal treatment of women at Tahrir Square certainly isn't about to disappear overnight. Some activists have argued that the sexual violence at Tahrir is essentially artificial, likely orchestrated by the security forces in order to keep women away from demonstrations. Unfortunately, that interpretation doesn't square with the prevalence of such behavior elsewhere in Egyptian society, and getting rid of it is far more likely to involve a long, hard struggle against deeply held attitudes. Some activists blame Islam itself. Others argue that Islam's inherent egalitarianism and stress on social justice offer a basis for challenging patriarchal traditions from within the religion. Still others insist that proper religious observance is the best way of preventing abuses.

One can only hope that Egyptian women will not lose heart and continue to press their demands for change in the months and years ahead. For all the challenges ahead, says Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed, she's encouraged by the extraordinary female activism that has come to the fore since the revolution began. After all, she points out, at least 10 million Egyptian women -- a quarter of the total female population -- are now university graduates, a group that has the confidence to publicly challenge wrongs.

Ahmed points to the story of Samira Ibrahim, one of many female protesters subjected to so-called "virginity tests" by the Egyptian security forces in March 2011. Rather than acquiesce to her humiliating treatment, Ibrahim opted to take the military to court, thus exposing its sleazy practices to national scrutiny. "In my day," Ahmed says, "someone subjected to ‘virginity tests' would have slunk away in shame. But now they sue the government.

She's right. That's why it will be interesting to see what happens as women seek to reclaim their rights at Tahrir and elsewhere. Long live the revolution.

MOHAMMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images

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