There is no doubt that the recent revolution in Egypt got the wheels of the Arab Spring rolling. But just as quick as women were to flood the corners of Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo in the hopes of a democratic Egypt, their voices were soon sidelined.
This is nothing uncommon. Even in conservative countries, we frequently see women come out in full force during political protests with little to no objection from the men. And this was not a first for Egyptian women who were heavily involved in Egypt’s 1919 revolution.
It is after the euphoria fades, after the dictator is placed under house-arrest when the political blueprint of a country is being determined that women are nowhere to be heard. We repeatedly see this. From Bangladesh’s ’71 War of Independence, to Iran in ’79, to Libya, Syria, and all over the Middle East today, where are the women at the decision-making table? Where are the women when it comes to forming the new government?
Women may be a consistent feature of the ongoing electrifying protests in the Middle East, but the one thing that has not changed is how women are forced back into the domestic sphere when the big boys (aka military) with their guns come to town. It is the aftermath we are still fighting to play a role in.
This brings us to post- Mubarak Egypt. While rumors of virginity tests being conducted on female protesters while in custody were rampant and reported even by Amnesty International, they have just been confirmed by a high-ranking Egyptian General who also added:
The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.
Now before you gasp in shock and disgust over this statement, consider who it comes from. Noted Egyptian feminist writer Mona Eltahawy points out that we should not be surprised at all that this general, speaking on condition of anonymity, would say something like this.
Eltahawy states that aside from Egypt’s staggering sexual harassment statistics, (80% of women report street sexual harassment; 60% of men admit to doing so), in 2006 Mubarak actually directed his security forces to target female activists and journalists for sexual assaults at demonstrations as a means to “shame them back home.” A year later, during a religious festival mass sexual assaults against women and girls took place in Cairo while the police watched.
Nobody believed that change would come overnight for Egypt with the departure of Mubarak’s regime, but the young and old, men and especially women, still have high hopes for it. And they should because like the rest of the region, the time for dictators and their dynasties is over.
Virginity tests are nothing new to Egypt. It is described as something that straddles across class and urban/rural divides. But it becomes something entirely different when the state is conducting them. It is a testament to how Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), who have replaced Mubarak, is using the sexual behavior of women, its cultural associations with honor in this region, to once again shame women away from political protest.
It may have worked in the past, but in this age of information and more importantly, social media and blogging, it is a useless tactic. Women in Egypt and beyond will not stand for it anymore. Eltahawy says that it is the virginity tests which will spark Egypt’s next revolution:
There’s a thin line between sex and politics, and it is nonsense to keep repeating the mantra that Egypt’s revolution “wasn’t about gender”. What revolution worth its salt can be fueled by demands of freedom and dignity and not have gender nestled in its beating heart?
Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain no revolution in no nation can be transformational or sustainable until we identify the gender factor, and uproot patriarchy. Fighting for democracy and fighting against patriarchy go hand in hand.
It is time to admit that, and finally let gender out of revolution’s closet.
*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman & The Huffington Post.
Anushay, this article sends chills down my spine. It is so important to be aware of authorities (government, etc) that will use woman’s sexuality to shame them, and most importantly strip them of their power. I do agree that it is no longer a useful tactic. Gender and revolution go hand in hand! Yes, yes and yes!
Thanks for posting! A friend of mine in Cairo wrote this:
”Cairo is so different, people have gone totally wild. It’s hard to describe, I mean there’s chaos everywhere obviously, in every single sector, but the way people move in the streets and interact with each other is quite different, there’s plenty of aggression, no sense of limits at all, but a lot of empathy and affection at the same time. It’s like we’ve become one huge family, and so we take each other for granted every once in a while… Everybody is immersed in political analyses. Women are so empowered, it’s frightening, you see more skin than usual, and the shaabi ladies are on fire. It’s basically that no one is taking shit from anyone anymore, which is great.”
Women in the Middle East have to seize this moment to assert their rights, and I think they are.