My Own Private Guantanamo

Pranks, Power and Pop Culture


Women on the front lines in Egypt

January 30, 2011


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.

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  • Late Night Drifts: Women of Egypt « Sky Dancing

    [...] Women on the front lines in Egypt 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. [...]

  • agami

    good to publish and expand on this phenomenon to end the myths of intimidation of women in islamic societies,manufactured by the western media ,blaming islam for cultural fixations.

  • Tim Overdiek

    This is what our correspondent in Beijing let me know, regarding the picture of the woman screaming in the police man’s face: “can I please draw the readers’ attention to the fact that the first photo on Matt Cornell’s website (Egypt 7, woman facing a group of armed police) was not even made in Egypt. In fact, it features an Uyghur woman during the 2009 up…rising in Xinjiang, China. Kinda makes you doubt the truth and honesty of the report, right?”
    (Tim Overdiek, Amsterdam)

  • Anonymous

    Hi Tim. So, which photo is in dispute? This one?

    Or, this one?

    And, have you contacted Leil-Zahra Mortada who posted the photos to Facebook? If she confirms the error, I’ll be happy to correct. If your Beijing correspondent is right, I’m sure it’s an honest mistake. As you know, internet access has been shut down in Egypt, and so there are bound to be mistakes in reporting and attribution.

    In any event, I am not at all sure how the possible mistake of attributing this photo to the Egyptian uprising discredits “the truth and honesty” of the story about women’s role in the protest movement.

  • egypt: past, present, and future | What's that you said?

    [...] are pushing back at this by highlighting the high rate of women participating in these uprisings: Women on the front lines in Egypt Why is it important to draw attention to this phenomenon [of the high participation of women in the [...]

  • Lily Mulholland

    Thank you – our Australian media is showing only men in the streets, so it’s important we have alternate sources to give balance to the hysterical coverage.

  • Tim Overdiek

    Hi Matt,

    It was the top one. The story still stands, I agree with you. What my colleague was pointing out, is that we have to be careful and precise about the material we use. Twitter for example is a great source, but can be deceiving as well. As a journalist for Dutch national public broadcasting we try to make sure we check Tweets as well before we use them in our reporting. It can be a slippery slope, and (unknowingly) using a picture that tells a whole different story can cause a tiny credibility crack. Anyhow, no doubts whatsoever about what’s going on in Egypt today. Best, Tim

  • My Own Private Guantanamo

    [...] the assailants were Muslims, nor that they had any connection to the overwhelmingly peaceful and harassment-free demonstrations. In fact, there’s reason to believe that Logan’s attackers may have been [...]

  • Neil Patrick Tan

    how sure are you that the first photo was not taken in egypt but in xinjian,china?..the police look like egyptians..i guess..peace be with you.I just want some undoubtful proof about what you said.

  • Neil Patrick Tan

    My mistake,the photo you mentioned was removed.

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