The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square

By Rubin, Elizabeth | Newsweek, March 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Feminists in the Middle of Tahrir Square

Rubin, Elizabeth, Newsweek

Byline: Elizabeth Rubin

How three generations of activists--a physician, a television personality, and a graphic artist--

joined the Cairo protests to launch a revolution of their own.

At the height of the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, I saw the crowds cleaved by a stream of girls and young women in pink and blue veils. Men formed a shield around them so they could move through the square unimpeded. When a solitary man tried to join the procession, he was turned away: "No! This is the women's revolution." To which one of the women added: "We are here as women, but we are speaking out for everyone."

The novelist and essayist Ahdaf Soueif, who was in the square passing out cookies, was in an ecstatic mood. "What we are seeing is not a shift in personality, but people finally able to access their personalities." She says she and her women friends were thinking of issuing a statement asking, "Can we get rid of this whole gender thing?"

In the euphoric, even utopian, atmosphere of Tahrir, everyone talked of the Egyptians' psychological breakthrough. Walls of fear, class, and even gender were broken. There was no feminism or ideology. Women were simply demanding the same pragmatic constitutional changes that every Egyptian wants. Everything is up for debate, including the Islamic laws that remain within the Constitution. But the "gender thing" cannot be so easily expunged in a culture where women have been, in many respects, second-class citizens, despite the crucial role they have always played in nurturing democracy and nationalism over the last century.

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where women cannot even drive a car, women in Egypt have always held prominent public roles in the media, film, literature, and civil society. Nonetheless, patriarchal laws are still inscribed in the Constitution. And conservative mores have steadily seeped into the culture from the Gulf states, where millions of Egyptians have been forced to migrate for work over the last few decades. The numbers of women in Parliament, for example, are telling: only four won seats in the 2005 elections.

The story of Egyptian female power may date back to Cleopatra, but the name I heard among women and intellectuals around Tahrir (Liberation) Square was that of Hoda Shaarawi, who was in the forefront of the 1919 revolution against the British and, in 1923, famously tossed off her veil in public. It was a symbolic act of rebellion, resented by the religious establishment and too shocking for universal adoption, but Shaarawi inspired a generation with her inch-by-inch fight for women's personal and political rights--the abolition of polygamy, the right to divorce.

Around the time Shaarawi died in 1947, a girl named Nawal El Saadawi in Kafr Tahla, a village north of Cairo, had already taken up the torch. Jailed, menaced, and exiled throughout her life, Saadawi is now 79 and could be found protesting in the square every day.

Saadawi's father was a progressive man, an official who had taken part in the 1919 rebellion but followed the custom of having his daughter (one of nine children) married off at the age of 10. Or, rather, trying. Nawal had already fallen in love with literature. She'd read Jane Eyre and pretended to be mad when the suitors came around. She went on to graduate from medical school, become a chest surgeon, and marry a fellow student who ran off to Suez as a guerrilla fighter against the British and returned a broken man and drug addict. In the 1967 war with Israel she volunteered as a doctor in the trenches and in the Palestinian camps in Jordan. The experience radicalized her. She wrote a novel about a Palestinian fighter she'd met. In 1972 she broke even more taboos than Hoda Shaarawi did by writing Women and Sex, which dealt with female desire, religion, and genital mutilation. Unsurprisingly, it angered the religious and political authorities. By then she'd been working in the Ministry of Health for 14 years. …

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