UPDATED BELOW 1/31
There was an interesting piece in Slate the other day about the role of women in the Egyptian uprising. Women’s participation in the demonstrations on Tuesday’s “Day of Anger” was estimated to be as high as 50%. This hasn’t always been the case.
Protests have a reputation for being dangerous for Egyptian women, whose common struggle as objects of sexual harassment is exacerbated in the congested, male-dominated crowd. Police hasten to fence in the demonstrators, and fleeing leads to violence. And women, whose needs are not reflected in the policies of official opposition groups who normally organize protests, have little reason to take the risk.
So, what’s different this time? At least partially, it’s the presence of women as leaders in the protest movement. Though Slate notes that fewer women have been visible on the streets since the military crackdown, there’s still plenty of evidence that they’re playing a critical role in the demonstrations.
Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy has emerged as one of the most prominent representatives of the movement on Western news media. Yesterday, she successfully got CNN to change their headline from “CHAOS IN EGYPT” to “UPRISING IN EGYPT.
Eltahawy, whose Twitter feed has been essential reading for those following the events in Egypt, has been circulating a link to a Facebook album filled with inspiring pictures of women on the front lines of the protests. (Le Monde has a similar gallery for the protests in Tunisia.)
Why is it important to draw attention to this phenomenon? Because we know it’s in the The West’s playbook to exploit concern for women’s rights to justify its imperial ambitions. That’s one of the many ways that the war in Afghanistan was sold to the public, from the CIA’s Wikileaked cable on manipulating public opinion in Europe to the propagandistic cover of Time magazine depicting a woman disfigured by the Taliban.
Culture warriors have cynically co-opted feminist rhetoric to push for bans on the Islamic veil throughout Europe, despite evidence that such prohibitions might actually make women more isolated and less safe. In 2009, Switzerland actually banned the construction of minarets, supposedly in response to feminist concerns.
I would not be at all surprised to hear US leaders, media pundits, and even some liberals defend the Mubarak regime by underscoring the potential threat of newly-empowered Islamists to impose restrictions on women’s rights in Egypt.
This possibility certainly exists, but we should not pretend that the United States is sincere about these concerns, nor should we ignore the tens of thousands of Egyptian women taking to the streets to demand change.
Newsweek has an even more detailed story on women’s participation in the protests and the focus on “purity” (ie. keeping them free of sexual harassment and safe for women.) It also notes that activists fear the government might employ agents provocateurs to harass women and destablize the protests.
This Morning, Amy Goodman had a great interview with Nawal El Saadawi, an 80 year old feminist activist, with a remarkable life story. While the right wing predictably begins to drum up fears about an “Islamic takeover” in Egypt, she emphasizes that men and women alike are demanding an end to the Mubarak regime.
Another note: I removed the first photo from this blog post, after feedback from a couple of folks that it is likely not from the Egyptian uprising. The photo in question is still in the Facebook gallery here, and one commenter suggests that it is actually sourced from a 2009 protest in China.