I have not been on the streets of Cairo with my friends and colleagues over the last week, but to make up for it I have been obsessively monitoring Al Jazeera International’s livestream, my Twitter feed and – when the Mubarak regime’s restrictions on technology allow – talking to people I know on the ground in Cairo. The recurring point that I hear, see and read is that this is a genuine popular uprising that includes Egyptians of all religious, social and economic backgrounds. That in itself is an amazing feat and an inspiring one in a country where the government has systematically impeded organizing and fostered sectarianism and class conflict.
Part of this inspiring trend is seeing the number of women who are being represented in the demonstrations. It is inherently complicated for me, an American, non-Muslim man to discuss the status of women in the Arab world. There are too many familiar neo-Orientalist tropes about Arab and Muslim women as abused and cloistered, and I realize that I may be treading dangerously close to that territory. But I have spent enough time in Egypt to be familiar with the country and to notice when something seems different.
It is no secret that Egypt is a conservative country when it comes to gender relations. Men and women generally, though not exclusively, adhere to traditional gender roles where women stay at home. As a result, many public spaces are heavily male dominated. Moreover, sexual harassment is frustratingly common and affects woman regardless of their religion or social class. This further helps to keep women off the streets. Big crowds, like soccer rallies, are usually the least hospitable for women.
Since this uprising began, the typical gender dynamic in Egypt’s public space seems to have been thrown out with the regime. Some have said that as many as half of the protesters are women. Moreover, as I have watched Al Jazeera it seems clear that women of all walks of life, from young girls in jeans to older women wearing niqab, are taking part. All are chanting, pumping their fists and, at times, battling with the riot police. Last Wednesday, after the initial day of demonstrations that triggered the current uprising, I had a G-chat conversation with a (religious and conservative) friend in Cairo. “You can find cooperation between youth with beards and girls wearing foreign clothes,” he told me of the solidarity he had witnessed the day before. Other people I have talked to report that sexual harassment, an extremely common problem in Cairo, especially when crowded, has barely existed during the demonstrations, a result, I believe, of people taking a sense of ownership over public space that couldn’t exist under the Mubarak regime.
Nawal El Saadawi, an octogenarian legendary Egyptian feminist, has been out in the streets protesting along side everyone else. “Women and girls are beside boys in the streets,” she said while speaking to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!. Even she seems impressed by the gender equality in the streets of Cairo today, which she hopes will continue.
Much of the U.S. media’s coverage of the ongoing uprising in Egypt has been pretty alarmist and ignorant, in particular with regard to the “Islamist threat” posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. (See, for example, this astoundingly tone-deaf article in Slate by someone I suspect has little experience in Egypt.) But it has pleased me to see that the role of women has not gone completely ignored. While CNN may be focused on the Muslim Brotherhood (an issue for another day), even Newsweek has noted the important role that women that women are playing in the uprising, as has PBS.
In new media, too, we are seeing women represented. A powerful Facebook album of photographs of Egyptian women protesters has been widely circulated. Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian feminist and dissident, has been one of the most active and visible people on Twitter. People are posting audio clips of women and girls leading protest chants.
There is a danger in making too much of the role of women in the uprising, a threat of turning it into a spectacle that – imagine! – Arab women, too, can be powerful advocates for change. (We saw a bit of this in Tunisia, to a certain extent.) Furthermore, we should remember that seeing women take to the streets in Cairo, Suez and elsewhere does not represent some kind of fundamental restructuring of gender relations in Egypt. What it demonstrates, though, is the depth and breadth of this movement in which all people, galvanized by the promise of a better life, are taking part, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians, liberals, leftists and Islamists, and, yes, men and women.