The posters were torn to shreds, laying in scattered piles at the south end of Tahrir Square, where Egypt’s anti-government protests began on 25 January. Some had giant X marks scrawled across them, others had been covered in writing reading “Not now.” All the posters were covered by the marks of dirty shoes, as hundreds of reactionary Egyptian men trampled them underfoot.
The posters were simple in their few demands, aired as part of International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s achievements and promote gender equality: They called for harsher punishments against sexual harassment. They called for fairer representation in parliament -- and for a woman to stand for Egypt’s presidency. In short, they called for acknowledgment of women’s rights. For equality.
Just before nightfall, women were scattered around the square in small numbers, surrounded by at least 500 men, possibly more.
I saw a pack of around 150 men driving forward, as a lone women protected by a handful of relatives and friends yelled at the men, who were working themselves into a frenzy. The woman, wearing jeans and a t-shirt climbed over a barrier and began running across the grass outside the Mogamma building in the square. She was pursued by a mob of men who were pushed back by a handful of people desperately attempting to protect her. Eventually, when the woman’s safety was seriously threatened, two soldiers intervened with truncheons, beating back the mob of screaming men. The soldiers left, and the woman fled across the street.
I saw a young western woman running across the street, east of Tahrir Square, holding her head, a group of men stalking away behind her. And I watched as three women stood in Tahrir Square in front of another mob of men, simply holding their posters, completely surrounded by the mob. One man, Yousef, dressed in a well-cut suit and wearing Oakley sun-glasses, was yelling at the three women. “Not now,” he chanted, in chorus with the rest of the mob. Yousef explained, with a slight American accent, that Egyptians could not focus on the grievances of one group of people. “It is about all Egypt now. We have to stand together. No one group should act alone. We have other goals first. Later they can talk about what they want.”
His sentiments were repeated again and again by other reactionary men. An engineer called Abdul-Wahab told me that foreigners were making trouble, forcing women they were having sex with to come out and protest.
Since January, waves of protest have swept across Egypt. From Coptic Christians demanding an end to the discrimination to widespread labor unrest. Workers have been demanding an end to workplace corruption and better salaries.
These labor protests are a daily occurrence across all of Egypt and are a direct result of the regime’s neo-liberal policies which undercut workers rights. Tens of thousands of workers have been airing their demands, through sit-ins, walk-outs and street protests. Not once have these protests been shouted down by mobs of men. Indeed, Abddul-Wahab had been out protesting for workers’ rights in Cairo.
Why then the difference for women demanding rights or simply airing their grievances? “This is not the time,” said Abdul-Wahab.
A group of female journalists from a local magazine had prepared banners earlier in the day. Some of them wept as a group of men forced them out of Tahrir Square. One man, his eye covered in a bandage from an injury sustained during the anti-government protests, was screaming at the young women. A young child yelled “Yalla” (‘hurry up’ or ‘go’) repeatedly at them.
Speculation has focused on whether Egypt has really been through a revolution, or not. Most Egyptians will say it has. But a revolution should not simply mean the overthrow of a political system -- which has not yet happened in Egypt. A real revolution should entail widespread social reform, or at the very least give rise to an environment in which problems endemic to a society are verbalized and addressed.
In the 2010 World Gender Gap Report, Egypt was ranked 125 out of 134 countries and performed worst in regard to the political empowerment of women. But that is not all. Harassment of women is a constant. Marital rape is widespread. Along with the rest of the Middle East, sexual abuse of children within the wider family is remarkably high, but remains largely unreported. More than 80 percent of women are circumcised, though the government has attempted to stamp out the practice.
The abhorrent display by Egyptian reactionaries to the women in Tahrir Square took some by surprise. Ahmed, a translator and Arabic teacher, said that he was “shocked” by the events. “After what we went through together here, I can’t believe I am seeing this,” he said.
Many women had reported an end to sexual harassment during the 18 days of Egyptian protest in Tahrir Square. However, as soon as Mubarak stood down, harassment started again. A point which Egyptian women reiterated time and again. The night of Mubarak’s resignation, there were numerous cases of sexual assault, most involving groping and verbal slurs.
The demands made by the women in Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day were legitimate -- and essential for Egypt to progress. Demanding equality cuts deep. Actually listening to these demands cuts much deeper.
The problems associated with Middle Eastern patriarchy, corruption, autocracy and discrimination can all be addressed, challenged and eventually changed through a fundamental acceptance of equal rights. But the scenes in Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day have called into question the ability of Egypt to adapt and change. Those who failed to protect the female protestors – indeed those who failed to join the protest – are just as accountable as the reactionaries whose backwardness was on display.
For Farida, an editor at a local magazine, who was shouted out of Tahrir Square, her day began in optimism. “It was going to be like a school trip. We made our funny signs and wanted to be there to stand up for women. I did not expect such hatred, not after we had all stood together in Tahrir Square,” she said. “Some men told us that the closest we would ever get to a president is if we gave birth to one. There were so many men we couldn’t even see the women. They got so aggressive with us saying: ‘What the hell are you doing here, you should go home.’ They started pushing women, some got kicked, had their cameras taken. They were saying ‘no’ to us. Couldn’t they have given us a couple of hours? What is the problem? In the future I hoped things would get better. After today, that’s bullshit.”
Once again, the Egyptian military failed in its duty to protest legitimate protestors from attacks. Soldiers argued that they could only follow orders and could not be seen to be taking sides: they would lose legitimacy if they intervened.
Leaving Tahrir Square, I watched as a man used his foot to drag two pieces of torn poster together. He stood, with another man, reading through the list of women’s demands. A smirk and look of puzzlement spread across his face.
Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist based in Cairo.
Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global