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The Revolution in the Square and at Home: The Continuing Struggle of Women in Egypt

Photo of protesters in Tahrir Square, 2011by Nina Verfaillie

In the two years since the onset of the Egyptian Revolution we have witnessed the struggle of Egyptian women as they have actively participated in the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. They have stood next to their male counterparts as primary actors in the revolution and have fought for rights in the following reformation of governance, law, and order.

The subsequent democratic election of new leadership, which was the first in Egypt’s history, saw the historical participation of women en masse from all walks of life. It was also punctuated by their public disenfranchisement through humiliating sexual assaults in the public and revolutionary spheres. This encroachment on basic human rights and security in the reformation of government and power resulted in women losing many protections and rights that were previously afforded to them.

Even though women were key participants in the successful coup, they have experienced a loss in rights and political representation, while sexual violence against women has become an ongoing theme in the revolution. This past summer brought even more change and upheaval with the July ousting of Mohammad Morsi, and it was followed by another series of violent sexual attacks against women in the public sphere. It is time for a serious look at the continuing struggle of women in the revolution, and the role feminism has played in providing access and narrative to their fight.

For many, the plight of Egyptian women following the revolution has been a disappointment. Initially they were welcomed members of the revolution and their images of protest became central to the overall identity of the movement. The early protests were noted for their lack of sexual harassment and the sheer number of women involved and publically engaged. They went to the same protests, took the same risks of participation, and fought for the same cause.

The tone of the revolution shifted, and public assaults and rapes somehow became part of the protests. Female revolutionaries were then subjected to “virginity tests” and further rape and assault at the hands of riot police. Their exploitation now included their brothers in the revolution and ordinary citizens.

Although public sexual harassment in Egypt is an oft discussed topic in western media, the voice of women in Egyptian revolutions is not. Previous generations held famed Arabic singer Uum Kulthum as the voice of their revolutions and wars, and still hold her songs as the nation’s sobbing lament for a fallen president and his movement. As much as the revolution would not have been truly successful without all of the women who participated in it, they have also seen themselves used as political tools for parties and politicians who wish to use their disenfranchisement to solidify support and project religious legitimacy and do not see their equal participation as a cause for concern. Mubarak may be gone, but the oppression and exploitation of women still remains, in government and in Egyptian daily life. Read more

Posted on by Nina Verfaillie in Feminism Leave a comment