The Women in Tahrir Square – The Feminist Wire

The Women in Tahrir Square

Editor’s Note:  In light of the most recent examples of resistance and protest in Egypt, we offer this reminder and analysis of events earlier in the year.  Let us keep in mind as much of the larger picture as possible.

By Zillah Eisenstein

A fresh wind blows from North Africa.  People across the globe await the full expression of this Arab spring. After the toppling of Mubarak the people of Egypt voted in a referendum, of sorts, on whether to say yes to limited reforms of the constitution, or to say no, and push towards more consequential democratic changes.  There was overwhelming approval to accept the limited constitutional changes. An election follows soon.  What emerges from all this is yet to unfold.

Photo by Clinton Verley

Also at the time of this writing, the world awaits news of whether a total nuclear disaster will be averted in Japan, and whether the slaughter of rebels in Libya will abate or worsen as the U.N.-endorsed bombing of Gaddafi continues. Homelessness in Haiti and Pakistan proceed relentlessly after their own earthquake, and floods. The world is uneasy and precarious.

Amidst all this I wonder how to think newly about democracy and its many meanings and undemocratic misuses, as well as the many meanings of feminisms, and their (sometimes) misuses of women’s rights discourse.  I will muse a bit about this wondering and hoping that I might end up somewhere other than where I have begun.

I have recently returned from meeting my long time friend Nawal el Saadawi in New York City.  She spoke at the Brecht Forum along with others, and I made comments. She had arrived a few days before from Cairo.  She was still filled with the fullness and radiance—despite her fatigue—of the dethroning of Mubarak from Tahrir Square.  She had loved the camaraderie of making a revolution that coalesced on January 25, 2011.  She loved the breaking down of all divides—the walls dividing people in their homes from each other and the public square; the divides of Christian and Muslim, and woman and man, and rich and poor, young and old.  She described how all people with their broad band of humanity, across class and every other divide stood together, against their police state and for democracy.  It was definitely a revolution defined by and through people’s intersectional selves.

When Nawal was asked by the audience at the Forum what she thought would be helpful for the people of the United States to do to assist Egypt, she replied: “make your own revolution.  A revolution in your country, to build a real democracy, would help everyone across the globe, not just Egypt.”  When she was asked about the women in Tahrir Square she said they/we were fighting for democracy for everyone.  We were not there with a singular focus but we were all there together as part of humanity. “We are/were here as women, but we are speaking out for everyone.”  This was not viewed as a feminist moment, so to speak, but rather “women demanding what every Egyptian wants.” Humanity is defined by an intersectional solidarity across sexual, racial and class divides.

She said several times that women were equal to men in this political struggle.  In the initial struggle to dismiss Mubarak, there was no sexual harassment. There was no groping of women to be felt or seen either.[i]  But, just days later on March 9, Women’s International Day, the assembling of a Million Woman March was a disappointment. Few women showed up to demonstrate, and those who did were bullied and taunted.  Several Egyptian women say that this was not the time to advance any one group’s rights over those of another. Maybe.  Maybe not.  At the very least there is a problem of what women’s rights will mean in the new Egypt and how women can go forward as a sexual class with grievances that also embraces a wider intersectional camaraderie with men.

On this day of the women’s march, harassment and ridicule were back with a vengeance and needed to be addressed. As well, no woman was chosen to be on the 10 member committee that was appointed to revise the constitution; and one of the amendments requires that the next president cannot be married to a non-Egyptian woman–that assumes that the next president will be a man, and needs a wife, unless they are allowing gay marriage.  Many Egyptians said that they cannot endorse such an amendment.  Yet the referendum agreed to all the amendments. Some women’s rights activists have become suspicious that the new “national umbrella they rallied under, whose slogan was democracy, equality and freedom for all Egyptians, may be leaving them out”. [ii]  Yet it would be very wrong to think that nothing or little had/s changed.

I heard Nawal interviewed on Al Jazeera before coming to the United States, saying that Egypt must make itself ready for a woman president. She also believes that women’s rights cannot be met in a vacuum and that they must always be tied to the related concerns of class and anti-imperial politics.  In this sense, Nawal el Saadawi, although a woman’s activist and fierce fighter for the rights and dignity of women, does not abide a feminism that pretends to speak on behalf of all women (and men) while mobilizing to protect the interests of a few (women) within a racialized patriarchal global capitalist economy.  I am already getting ahead of myself because all of these issues—women’s rights, and feminisms of all sorts, and the interconnections of women’s oppression across the globe—have been contested and conflict ridden for many decades.

Egyptian feminisms existed long before feminisms in the United States.  And yet when Hillary Clinton claims the mantel for fighting for women’s rights in the soon to be new Egypt, she effaces the on the ground women’s activists there, whether that is her intent or not.  Forget that the United States had no problem with the punishing sexual subjugation of women during Mubarak’s ruthless reign, and supposedly cares now.  Forget that the bombs dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq were initially wrapped in the language of protecting women from the Taliban and for their women’s rights.  Forget that so many women in Egypt and Tunisia and Jordan first say for the United States to recognize and fix Palestine before speaking on behalf, or for them.  Forget that Tahrir Square was populated with many revolutionary women without the assist of the United States or the state department’s brand of its feminism.

I am thinking that the language of democracy and women’s rights is both universal and also fractious.  The people of Tunisia and Egypt demand/ed and continue to demand democracy, but I do not think this necessarily means, or should, or can mean capitalist/western patriarchal (and racialized) democracy.  Democracy parades with enormous authority and validity, and yet its history in its capitalist misogynist and racialized forms is less than libratory for a majority of its people.

I keep struggling to find political narratives that allow for the new nuances in the ways women’s struggles for recognition take shape and form.  I wish to try and write new and vigorous thoughts about the female voices that demand a really inclusive universal/polyversality in North Africa–and how this might relocate/redirect Hillary’s “war for women’s rights” to a non-imperial politics.  These moments in North Africa, must be fully grasped in terms of the new historical elements of protest and demand that are made with a cacophony of intersectional female voices.

I wonder, again, how feminism(s) are being rewritten in defiance of its imperial misuses. There is a deep contradiction in our administration demanding the recognition of women’s rights in the new Egypt while being less than vigorous in demanding full equality for all women here at home.  The latest U.S. labor statistics show that women continue to earn just 81.5 cents to a man’s dollar—despite the fact that women are a majority of the labor force today.  If Obama stands for democracy and women’s rights let him speak out more forcefully against the right wing assault against women’s reproductive rights, access to abortion and health care right here in the United States.  After all, just about everyone will say that they support women’s rights without ever clarifying which women’s rights they have in mind, and which women they extend these rights to.

The trick here is that woman’s rights as an idea has tremendous saliency across the globe among women with all sorts of democratic commitments.  Its power is that “women’s rights” means something to everyone, and yet not the same thing, much like the term democracy itself. “Women’s rights” is more or less accepted as a universal recognition of women’s equality because women were, and still very often are, excluded from civic universalism.  And, even though inclusion–like the acceptance that a president could be female in Egypt is insufficient for democracy, it cannot be ignored as an acceptable possibility.  This universal/polyversal wish for all people’s dignity embraces males and females with their subtle cadences, and yet civic universalism has never actually included women at its core

It is incredible that the United States supported the Mubarak dictatorship for years and then withdrew support from him in order to stand with the revolution, in the name of democracy, and now, women’s rights as well. The presumption of U.S. democratic commitments is a bit galling here— almost as galling as the fact that the tear gas cans were “made in the United States.”  I am with comedian Jon Stewart, who wondered why any country in their right mind would advertise the fact that they make tear gas.

Given the competing meanings of both democracy, and women rights, I am hesitant to think that the Egyptian protestor’s meaning of democracy is necessarily the same as Obama’s.  Tunisia’s rebellion started as a demand for a lowering of food prices and for much needed jobs.  In Yemen, there were also massive demonstrations demanding food prices be lowered.  It is interesting that these demands—the rights to food and to a job—are so easily translated into the language of “democracy.”  This translation is an elision of sorts—giving the pretense that a patriarchal capitalist version of democracy works for everyone in the same way.

The cost of food has sky-rocketed especially for poor nations.  Unemployment, particularly of the youth in these countries is mind-numbing.  About 40 percent of Egyptians eke out a living of about two dollars a day. Current estimates are that food prices are at 17 percent inflation.  According to Ellen Brown high food prices which have created a global food crisis reflect the egregious speculating by Goldman Sachs with no concern for the cost of wheat and rice, the staples for the poor of the world. Jean Ziegler, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls this “a silent mass murder.”[iii]

The reason that singular identities—women rights, gay rights, the rights of the poor—have been amassed into a popular uprising and movement just may be because hunger, and its remedy food, trumps everything. What we are seeing is what Samir Amin might call “the “awakening of the South” in a struggle against the imperial order of capital.  Amin might put these movements in the category of a “second wave of the awakening of the peoples, nations, and states of the peripheries of the 21st century.”[iv]  There are mental and political leaps here–but the language of (bourgeois patriarchal) democracy cloaks the revolutionary commitments that must exist.

There is little talk of a working and middle class revolt in North Africa; or a transnational movement demanding the right to food, and an end to the exploitation of the land and labor of third world countries.  This would be a clairvoyant indictment of global capitalism and its particular patriarchal and racialized formulation of democracy.  Instead the world watches Tunisia, and Yemen and Egypt and the media narrative is of democracy’s oneness.

A new wind is blowing from Egypt. Let it be a wind that even women everywhere can breathe.  Let us listen to the female voices that bespeak an intersectional poly/universal community that excludes no one. Women and men were in the streets together in these protest movements across North Africa.  Egyptian women organized the food distribution and the garbage collection, and the public discipline, and the peaceful strategies. Nawal states: “women and men are in the streets as equals now.  We are in the revolution completely.  Of course if you know the history of revolutions you find that after the revolution, often men take over and women’s rights are ignored.  In order to keep our rights after the revolution, women must be united. We must have our women’s union again.  We cannot fight individually.”

A great thing about the revolutions in North Africa is that it tells us that surprises can happen, and change is about more than hope. So I remain committed to thinking in newly authentic and independent ways about women’s intersectional voices articulating a non-capitalist anti-racist, anti-misogynist democracy.

I am a bit hesitant about this process because we must think theoretically—meaning that we must think while recognizing the intersectional structured connections between points and sites of power.  But conceptual thinking requires concepts that are helpful and also constraining.  When we are looking to see structures we may see them in ways that they do not exactly exist in this moment.  I do not think I can see creatively without a framing of what I see and I also know the framing must be viewed skeptically in order to be useful.  Feminisms must embrace universal humanity at the same time that it/they point to the specifically misogynist forms of women and girls daily lives.

The cultural flows mix and remix.  Each culture has its own practices and yet they exist in g/local fashion.  As such we must negotiate the new feminisms and women’s activisms for democracy.  Does it matter if Egypt has a female president?  Or is what matters that women should never be excluded from any possibility?  After all, it has not helped democracy in my mind that the U.S.-Afghan and -Iraq wars were/are overseen by female secretary of states: Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and, Hillary Clinton.  President Karzai allows new restrictions on Afghan women daily under the auspices of Taliban pressure, while Afghan women are promised that they will not be bartered.  But they are.

Newsweek’s March 14, 2011 cover advertises “Hillary’s War”—and how she is fighting for women’s rights and against glass ceilings for women everywhere.  They call this “the Hillary doctrine” that focuses and challenges on the antidemocratic forces limiting women’s and girls lives across the globe.[v]  I do not mean to impugn Hillary’s motives or her personal commitments to women’s rights although I do mean to deeply criticize and condemn the policies she oversees that run counter to bettering a majority of women’s and men’s lives in North Africa and elsewhere. I do not think that an imperial form of women’s rights is what the women in Tunisia or Egypt have in mind.

In Beijing, 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, sponsored by the United Nations, Hillary Clinton declared that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”  Although many women and women’s rights activists across the globe would agree, this statement has muddied the waters since.  So let us hear from the women of Tunisia, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt what they want this to mean for themselves.  Maybe there is a new wind blowing for all of us here too.  I am reminded of Nawal again: make a revolution in the United States and help the whole globe by doing so.

[i] Elizabeth Rubin, “The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square”, Newsweek, March 14, 2011, p. 68.
[ii] Basma Atassi, “The New Egypt: Leaving Women Behind”, March 8, 2011,
[iii] Ellen Brown, “The Egyptian Tinderbox: How Banks and Investors are Starving the Third World”, February 2, 2011, at
[iv] Samir Amin,  “The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation”, Monthly Review, vol.62, no.9 (February, 2011), p. 17.
[v] “Hillary’s War”, Newsweek, March 14, 2011, p. 46.  Also see my many writings of the last two decades about Hillary Clinton, especially, my most recent in The Audacity of Races and Genders, A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Election (London: Zed Press, 2009).

Zillah Eisenstein is Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York. Throughout her career her books have tracked the rise of neoliberalism both within the United States and across the globe. She has documented the demise of liberal democracy and scrutinized the growth of imperial and militarist globalization. She has also critically written about the attack on affirmative action in the United States, the masculinist bias of law, the crisis of breast cancer and AIDS, the racism of patriarchy and the patriarchal structuring of race, the new nationalisms, and corporatist multiculturalism. She has a fabulous daughter, sarah eisenstein stumbar, who is a fourth year medical student, suny stonybrook, applying for residencies and has been a leader in “Medical Student for Choice.”

Her most recent books include: The Audacity of Races and Genders: A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Election (Zed Books Ldt., 2009), Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy (Zed Books Ltd., 2007),  Against EmpireLondon (Zed Books Ltd., 2004), Hatreds: Racialised and Sexualised Conflicts in the 21st Century (New York, Routledge, 1996), Global Obscenities: Patriarchy, Capitalism and the Lure of Cyberfantasy (New York, NYU Press, 1998), ManMade Breast Cancers (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2001).