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Annie Rebekah Gardner and Hanaa Safwat live in Cairo, Egypt. They both had a very disappointing International Women’s Day.

Annie: Between the clashes at the Ministry of the Interior on Sunday and over ten being killed in Moqattam on Tuesday night, my optimism about the revolution (especially after an amazing Saturday night) has been on a steady decline, and in fact the counter-revolutionary currents presently going down have quite turned my speculation about changing masculinity on its head. Today, I’m having a feminist pizza party with Hanaa Safwat, a student, artist and revolutionary, to discuss the abysmal events of International Women’s Day, even as the inimitable Nawal el Sadawi is named in The Guardian‘s list of top 100 feminists (along with… Oprah?). Hanaa, you want to give us a rundown of what happened on March 8th?

Hanaa: Last week, there was a call for a protest by a group of NGOs and activists for women’s rights to protest on Tuesday, though the response online was not very big. I have several thoughts about this. First of all, a lot of people believe its not a good time to protest right now because things are sort of at a standstill, there’s a lot of confusion, and people want to give the interim government time to do something, and it’s kind of seen as a sectarian demand. I completely disagree with that. The other reasons given are bad timing, bad organization and of course the eternal reason: pure sexism, and people who just don’t think its legitimate for women to protest for their rights. They don’t even see what the problem is.

Annie and I both got to Tahrir at the same time. We made signs, and the organizers were distributing flyers and signs, which all had the same demands, like the fact that the committee to make amendments on the constitution didn’t have any women in it. There were demands for more representation of women in the cabinet and parliament, and that women should have a bigger role in helping to shape the changes that are happening in Egypt right now. One problem was that most of the women there were not veiled, which honestly isn’t representative of the general demographic of Egyptian women. They were mostly from upper-middle class backgrounds. There was a high percentage of foreigners, and there were a good amount of men, but it seems like some of them were just hanging out to watch.

Annie: We all do love spectacle! While we were there, stuff had started to get a little tense already, with lots of scuffles here and there and noisy old dudes saying that a woman couldn’t possibly be president.

Hanaa: Also that if women wanted equal rights, they should join the army. It’s not our fault that we live in a sexist state that doesn’t allow women to join the military!

Annie: Anyway, the vibe was getting bad, so we left to go get drunk at our preferred watering hole.

Hanaa: Which, if you think about it, was in and of itself an act of rebellion, because we’re not supposed to be sitting there, and we’re not supposed to be drinking.

Annie: Or smoking. Or laughing loudly.

Hanaa: Talking to boys.

Annie: Remember when the dude walked in to the bar with a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt and we all started clapping?

Hanaa: The poor guy just looked so distressed. Which is probably how most of the male allies at the protest felt, as they were being mocked and shamed. One guy was standing in front of me having a discussion and he wasn’t necessarily against us, but to some extent he was just a typical guy who thinks he’s pro-feminism and pro-women’s rights. He was like, “But you already have some really good rights. Our laws are still really good.” But that same guy and his friends were goofing around and they dared him to stand up with a sign. He stood up for five seconds and said, “See? I can do it,” and then stepped down again. He said something like, “Mayehemenish,” which basically means, “I don’t care.” Anyway, we heard later on – as we were at the bar – that women were chased out of the square. Women were chased out, molested, roughed up by people, mostly by men.

Annie: Even while we were there, shit started to go down. My friend’s five-year-old daughter was handing out flyers and watched as a group of both dudes and ladies ripped them out of her hands and threw them on the ground. Traumatic when you’re five. Seeing her cry, that frustration, made me livid. Perhaps in the heat of the moment I sent some tweets that alluded to castration! Who could know! I don’t remember, because I was seeing red. I think the fact that there were women complicit in these misogynist acts just made me even angrier.

Hanaa: Yes. Two days before the march, I was sitting with my cousin and mentioned that there was a march for women’s rights on Tuesday, and she asked, “Why? Do women not have rights?” I was in shock and asked her, “Are you making a joke?” and she said, “I’m serious, I just don’t see the need.” I was completely baffled, and pointed out that, for example, there’s no law against sexual harassment in this country. Later, she brought up one particular law, Khol’a, which is a woman’s right to divorce her husband. The problem with that is that to get divorced, women have to give up everything: your house, your dowry, your engagement ring, because women don’t pay dowry, men do. So her husband gives her that money, she has to give it back. It was ridiculous that she even brought it up because the law only helps women who are financially comfortable. It doesn’t help lower class women. It puts women in a situation where they can divorce a man and be destitute, or stay with him just because they need money. This woman, in fact, recently went through a divorce. She’s educated. But she doesn’t get it. This cousin, by the way, is the same woman who wanted to live in the 19th ventury after watching Pride and Prejudice.

Annie: BBC Version?

Hanaa: No, it was the feature film with Kiera Knightley.

Annie: For shame! BBC Pride and Prejudice, khalas. That’s the only one.

Hanaa: We should talk more about why people were against the protest. As I said, there’s a lot of confusion right now. There’s all these issues with the secret police, and theories are that secret police and salafis are trying to work to divide people. People are using this to explain the widespread opposition to the march, but a lot of those who opposed it were regular men. In their mind, women do have rights, and these extra demands – a say in their political future – are irrational and unrealistic and excessive.

Annie: We should also talk a little bit about sexual harassment, I think. We’ve discussed this on the blog before, but I think one of the really traumatic facts of Tuesday’s march was that by the end, many women had been violently sexually assaulted, and in several instances by men who they had camped in Tahrir with for the entirety of the uprising. I guess for me I’m just baffled that there was such a complete 180 in attitude. As we all know, women were integral to this revolution, and to see their desire to be part of a political future be laughed off was incredibly demoralizing.

Hanaa: Sexual harassment is just this topic that needs an encyclopedia, or an army of psychologists to dissect. There’s this general method of thought – I made a sign for the protest about it, in fact – that women are like these precious jewels, they’re supposed to be guarded, nobody should touch them, they should be protected and so on. When this jewel goes out in public, they have chosen to put themselves in danger, so they get what they ask for. The other problem with this thought is that a jewel is an object. It doesn’t have consciousness or desires or aspirations. It’s a thing, not a human being. So this whole method of thought, and add to that debates where people are blaming the victim, just like Lara Logan being blamed for her assault because she was an attractive woman. In this case, it’s that she wasn’t dressed modestly enough. She’s not covered up as she should be. The problem with that is that it has been proven time and time again that a man who sexually harasses a woman does not care what she’s wearing. It’s just a female on the street. They market wearing the veil as some kind of protection against these wolves on the street, and that’s a lie. Sexual harassment is not something you should be protected from, it’s something that should be battled, something that should be faced.

Annie: So do you think this event has radicalized your personal brand of feminism?

Hanaa: I think it was already radicalized. I walk in the street every day. This is something I had seen before, just in this case it was more theatrical. I hear sexism every day from anybody who talks about anything related to feminism. For example you sit with a random guy, you’re talking about a career, and he suddenly mentions he doesn’t want his future wife to work because he thinks it would put her in harms way. That conversation happens every day. So what I saw on Tuesday wasn’t new.

Annie: It was just much more of a stark example.

Hanaa: It was like a performance. An instructional video on how it is to be a woman in Egypt.

File under One of The Best Things We’ve Read on the Internet, Molly Lambert’s manifesto, “In Which We Teach You How to Be a Woman in Any Boys’ Club” from This Recording. Lambert’s insights — including the imperative that cool girls stop competing with each other for boys’ attention and start being the cool girl best friends we all dream about — include the advice, “Drive it like you stole it”:

Be the best. That is, assuming that you are the best. Be the best you can possibly be, whatever that means to you. Absolutely do not step down in order to not threaten people. Don’t apologize. If you genuinely fucked up fine, you are allowed to apologize once but then stop apologizing. Think about how much you hear women apologizing for themselves for no reason, or being self-deprecating or self-abnegating out of habit. What the fuck are you apologizing for? For being too good?

And thoughts on the lowered expectations women often encounter from men:

When men demonstrate or betray surprise that you know a lot about something or have mastered a skill that they care about, it unfortunately just shows that some guys still don’t expect women to care about anything. Except being pretty and shopping and having thoughts that are somehow completely unlike male thoughts in any way. They think we don’t like dumb obsessive information hoarding. They think our brains are wired differently. They are wrong. Sasha Baron-Cohen’s brother is wrong (man u so fucking wrong Simon).

The flip side of exceptionalism for anyone from an oppressed group is the realization that you are only considered exceptional because the system is sooooooo fuckkkkkked uppppppppp. The idea that it’s fair and you just worked your way in because you’re so hyper-talented is a useful seeming illusion that stops benefiting you the moment it fucks over somebody else. When men are like “wow you’re so cool, you’re not like most girls” it always begs the question oh my god what do you think girls are like?

At Salon, Aaron Traister (brother of Rebecca, the author of one of our past book club selections) wrote about how abortion impacted his life and why other men need to speak up:

But mostly, I don’t understand how these issues are still simply referred to as “women’s issues.” The destinies of men and women are intertwined by sex, and pregnancy, and childbirth. It is time for more men to sack up and start taking responsibility for their end of the conversation.

Speaking of! Remember how the South Dakota legislature introduced and then shelved a bill that could have protected the killing of abortion providers as “justifiable homicide” in defense of a fetus? Well, we can’t celebrate just yet: the Nebraska legislature has introduced a similar bill that could potentially protect anyone — not just the pregnant woman or her family — who commits “justifiable homicide.” Mother Jones reported that this bill could put abortion providers at major risk from anti-abortion vigilantes:

Abortion providers are frequent targets of violent attacks. Eight doctors have been murdered by anti-abortion extremists since 1993, and another 17 have been victims of murder attempts. Some of the perpetrators of those crimes, including Scott Roeder, the murderer of Wichita, Kansas, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, have attempted to use the justifiable homicide defense at their trials.

Al Jazeera English made room for some of the women of Cairo to tell their stories of the Egyptian uprising. Mona Seif, a 24-year-old researcher, explained that taking part in the protests has made her more confident and less afraid to speak out:

I know that Egypt has changed and we will transfer the spirit of the square to the rest of the country. Before Tahrir if I was [harassed] I would refrain from asking people for help, because there are a lot of people that would disappoint you by blaming you. But I think the spirit of the revolution has empowered us to spread the feeling we established wider and wider. From now on, if anything happens to me, I am going to scream, I am going to ask people to help me and I know that I will find people that will help me.

Meanwhile, Bill Maher tried to argue that sexism in America isn’t as problematic as sexism in the Middle East by demonizing Muslim men and downplaying the concerns of American women. Everyone loses! You can check out the video, transcript and some nice analysis at Womanist Musings. In this excerpt, Tavis Smiley calls out Maher:

Bill Maher: I mean in this country we treat women badly because
Tavis Smiley: Because we’re sexist and patriarchal
Bill Maher: They don’t equal pay, or someone calls you sugar tits or something like that. In those countries
Tavis Smiley: But you think that’s okay though
Bill Maher: I don’t but I don’t think it’s comparable to cutting their heads off, not letting them drive, not letting them work. I mean
Tavis Smiley: And all I’m saying is that you missed the point. If all you want to do is compare, you win that argument.
Bill Maher: Oh okay then.
Tavis Smiley: But my point is that it’s not about comparing, either right or wrong how we treat people and I think that it’s wrong there, and wrong here.
Bill Maher: It’s more wrong there. Degree matters, degree matters.
Tavis Smiley: Malcolm X said, “If you put a knife in my back and you pull it out six inches you call that progress. I’ve still got a knife in my back.” I don’t necessarily agree that degree always matters Bill.
Bill Maher: Really?
Tavis Smiley: yeah
Bill Maher: What would you rather do, make eighty cents on the dollar, or have your head cut off?
Tavis Smiley: I would rather us stop acting like we know the answers to everything, that we’re always right, that our way is always better, that we don’t make mistakes. That’s what I’d like.

Max Strasser is a journalist based in Istanbul and a former associate editor at Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition in Cairo.

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.