On 8 March, International Women’s Day, a few hundred women and their male supporters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demonstrate for women’s rights.
The demo had been well publicised. Billing it as a Million Women March was over-optimistic, but the organisers wanted to echo the calls for a million man (person?) march during the campaign to oust Hosni Mubarak.
And there certainly should be a million person march for women’s rights in Egypt.
Egyptian women face many of the same problems of women around the world and particularly in developing countries; but they have additional problems peculiar to north Africa. For example, more than 90% of Egyptian women have undergone Female Genital Mutilation, that is the painful and harmful “surgical” removal of their clitoris. That pecentage is lower among younger women but despite legislation against it the practice is still popular in the south.
The organisers of the 8 March demonstration, including a group called Women for Democracy and the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, many of whom had participated in the recent revolution, made the case that Egypt’s democracy will not be complete until women enjoy equality.
However, the response to the women demonstrators, including from ostensibly pro-democracy demonstrators holding other protests in the Square, was shocking and disappointing.
The demonstrators found themselves in heated arguments with onlookers and, ultimately, a number of women were chased across the Square and assaulted, physically and sexually.
Women participants in the recent Egyptian uprising testified to the important role played by women then, and their sense that gender barriers came down for a while in the Square.
That, it seems, was only a temporary liberation; sexual harassment returned to “normal” rife levels on the evening of the celebration of Mubarak’s departure (CBS journalist Lara Logan suffered a sustained sexual and physical assault in Tahrir Square that night). The events on 8 March show that more gains for women will be hard won.
Participants have been soul searching to work out “what they did wrong”: should they have waited till they could be sure of larger numbers before protesting? Were they wrong to engage in arguments with onlookers? Will they be perceived as opportunistically raising “minority” demands that risk splitting the democratic mass movement at a critical time? Crucially, were some of their demands “provocative”?
Women for Democracy raised two key demands:
• Egypt’s constitution should be secular.
• It should be possible for a woman to become president.
These two demands seem to have been particularly offensive to the hostile crowd. But they are entirely reasonable demands and, moreover, Egyptians need to fight for the democratic space where such demands can be raised.
The demands were also timely: on 19 March Egyptians are being asked to vote on a constitutional amendments hastily drawn up by the military regime now in power. Across the political spectrum, many observers are saying they should be rejected (the Muslim Brotherhood is supporting them).
The constitution as a whole is currently suspended pending amendment. Democrats are calling for the removal of the article which cites sharia law as a basis for the constitution; quite apart from other considerations, Islamic law should not be the basis for law in a country where Coptic Christians are around 10% of the population.
While having a woman president is not the key demand in gaining women’s liberation, the proposed constitutional amendments are also objectionable in that they are so worded as to make it clear that the president is assumed always to be a man.
This insult, coming right after a magnificent democratic revolution in which women played a full part, is a potent symbol of women’s inferior status in Egyptian society.
• Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights http://ecwronline.org/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1&lang=engl…
• More on strikes and solidarity: Egypt Workers’ Solidarity.