Women in (Post) Revolutionary Egypt – The Feminist Wire

Women in (Post) Revolutionary Egypt

By Ebony E.A. Coletu

The post-revolutionary society contains a warning in its name. Is the laborious work of political reconstruction part of the revolution or is it a new period that effectively ends the revolution by assigning it, let’s say, 18 specific days? The way we talk about ‘women in the Egyptian Revolution’ matters. If it entails iconic photos of protest only—the chanting teenager, the sign-wielding grandmother, the sea of women charging the police in Tahrir—we are left with memories, a conventional story of ‘before’ and ‘after’ where women were once equals, once passionately involved in political debates, once courageous martyrs representing the movement that would topple the regime.

Sabelo Narasimhan 2011

We can lament an opportunity lost and shake our heads when no woman is named to the Constitutional Committee; a decision effectively locking all women out of writing the rules of possibility. We can note the consistent pattern of revolutions past, where women’s bodies and political agency are sacrificed once the fighting has stopped. Once the revolution is over, the harassment begins again like a stopped subway that once had us walking in solidarity, now restoring service with inequality in lockstep.

These are important concerns. We might even call it motivational pessimism since it alerts us to the quiet losses that can happen in a post-revolutionary society. I’ve taken this stance at times, as have many others. However, we should also be sensitive to the consequences of telling a story under the banner of critical realism that forecloses the current agency and influence of women. This kind of realism takes the edge off of hope born through the experience of millions packed into Tahrir.

Aerial photo of Tahrir Square

I’ve challenged myself to get beyond my nostalgia for the moment on the Kasr El Nil bridge, when in a crush of strangers, we ran toward the tear gas, arms linked with friends and strangers who would shield us from harm, as we would for them. The fact is, nostalgia also stifles the efforts underway by so many women and men, championing women’s political participation, a deeper understanding of rights and fierce insistence on women’s inclusion in rebuilding the New Egypt. Looking back over the Revolution as a fait accompli, or a heroic moment now dissolved into mundane politicking, we may miss that every week in Cairo there are information sessions explaining constitutional amendments, newly enfranchised groups vying to form political parties, and public testimonials that keep the army’s human rights violations in view.

A month after Omar Suleiman’s proxy resignation speech, the square was still the geopolitical reference point for emerging values in the New Egypt. The tent city had become an institution, with narrow ‘streets’ and elaborate calligraphy on vinyl walls of the temporary homes. An enormous Egyptian flag was raised in the center, hailing the Republic of Tahrir. The meeting point for numerous protests demanding fulfillment of the Revolution’s remaining demands, the square also played host to the ambitiously titled “Million Woman March” scheduled for March 8 on International Women’s Day. Merely a few hundred women and men in solidarity showed up, myself included, a meager crowd demonstrating for gender equality in the New Egypt. Within hours, hundreds of men formed a counter-protest around us, hoisting young boys on their shoulders to shout down the demand for equal citizenship as a divisive agenda or a petty interest. The vigor of the counter-protest felt startling and destined for conflict.

Once the shoving began, all pretenses to order collapsed and we were grabbed, hit and then chased around the square until the army intervened. During those breathless moments we spent locked in a travel office until the army could disperse the crowd, we were all preparing to tell the tale of post-revolutionary regression—the spirit of Tahrir lost to a gross spectacle of sexism. But that story collapses the identities of protestors—those for and against. It conceals the number of men marching for women’s rights, and completely disappears the women who disagreed with the rights claimed on protest signs. It also overlooks something else that happened: fierce dialogue on the front lines.

Sabelo Narasimhan 2011

At one point, young men surrounded an older woman in niqab, chanting “You are foreigners! You are elitists! This is the real Egyptian Woman!” Ostensibly this woman represented national unity and support without demands.  Undeterred from the accusation of inauthenticity, women’s rights activists replied, “You are the not the young men of the Revolution!” pointing to the tents across the street. “You have forgotten the values of Tahrir!” Face to face verbal combat—before the pushing and punching began—took open political debate seriously as each side stepped away from state-of-emergency unity.

Sabelo Narasimhan 2011

After the international camera crews left, the protests in Tahrir and elsewhere continued. Men and women were arrested and tortured in the Egyptian Museum a month after Mubarak’s resignation. Women were subjected to ‘virginity tests,’ forced nudity, electrocution and the inverted charge of prostitution to refract the charge of gendered violence. Even as those women gave public testimony to atrocities carried out in the unmistakable pink building that is now a monument to torture, hecklers countered their claims. Nevertheless, the video footage and commentary videos that followed have ignited new groups, task forces and political parties that will outrun the audacity of denial.

Instead of examining post-revolutionary hypocrisies and failed promises of equality (all too familiar in the United States), we would do better to say that the Revolution continues and stay alert to the unexpected developments that started this movement in the first place.

Many thanks to Sabelo Narasimhan for taking photos constantly and documenting the Revolution in progress.


Ebony Coletu is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at the American University in Cairo.