commentary, photography

women of the revolution: cairo, egypt


Back on the blogging train, and this time with a recent piece I did for GlobalPost.  The photographs were published here, the words are up only on this site.  This continues an exploration that I’ve been working on for the past few years, on the role and experience of women in conflict, previously done in Vietnam and Bangladesh, and now here in the United States.  This is the chapter from Egypt, centering on what Cairene women had to say on being female and immersed in the recent political uprisings in Egypt.  They spoke both to the events themselves, and to the representation of women in the revolution by the media; their responses were impassioned and highly varied – read on to learn more.

Women of the Revolution

The events of Tahrir Square in January and February 2011 have been hailed as everything from a boon to a bust for the women of Egypt, with countless reports covering and recovering retrospectives on women’s role in the continuing Egyptian revolution.  But what do the women themselves have to say, about their own stories?

Responses to queries on the role of women in the revolution ranged from engaged to exasperated, with those in the latter camp feeling that the issue has been covered far too many times – and in a far too demeaning way.  The feminist movement in Egypt has a long history, with many of the women involved in the movement having been actively involved in politics far prior to January 25.  A number of the women interviewed underscored that this narrative has been too often excluded from the write-ups emerging from Egypt over the past year.

But in being asked to reexamine the coverage, those who were interviewed spoke to both the positive and negative aspects of how the media had portrayed Egyptian women in the revolution.  Some were pleased that the media was highlighting the issue of gender equality at all, a fight in which they had been personally engaged for years.  Yet others were frustrated by what they saw as superficial coverage, with the frequent references to women in burqas standing hand-in-hand with those in tight jeans rubbing many Egyptian women the wrong way.  They said that they felt confined by the categorization – that they were first and foremost activists and Egyptians and that those, rather than gender, should be their primary identifiers.

Yet, while some women were loath to label themselves as “female” before “revolutionary”, others underscored the importance of the distinction in the push for the advancement of women’s rights.  Heba Morayef, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch who is currently based in Cairo, said that the younger generation’s desire to see itself as post-feminist, fighting under the broader cover of human rights rather than women’s rights may be problematic. “It is a huge issue because then they don’t have the constituencies pushing for women’s rights; if there is not ownership, progress won’t be made.” Meena Tarek, a political activist and worker at the Asian African Bank, agrees.  “Change for women will come from women, not laws, and then be spread to society that way.”

Whether or not they list it among their primary political priorities, gender equality remains at the forefront of most women’s minds on a daily basis.  For many, the 18 days in Tahrir Square provided a glimpse of an Egypt that could be. “It was like Paris,” Tarek says.  Sally Zohney, a political activist and researcher at UN Women in Cairo, concurs.  “It became surreal how perfect the relationship between men and women was.  For a month I never thought I was a girl.  No one ever looked at me like I was a girl.” Women said they felt safer within the square, at any time of day, than they had ever felt before in Cairo, reporting that cases of sexual harassment all but disappeared during the encampment.

And that is no issue to be taken lightly, with sexual harassment consistently listed as one of the most pressing problems facing Egyptian society today.  According to a study released in July 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), 83% of Egyptian women reported being harassed, with half saying that it happened on a daily basis.  Furthermore, a full 62% of Egyptian men openly admitted to sexually harassing women.  With such high numbers – on both sides – reporting harassment, it is no wonder that the issue has been deemed an epidemic by many Egyptians.

Women are divided as to whether or not the gender dynamics of Tahrir have lingered.  Some say that that things have returned to the status quo, with the utopia of Tahrir dismantled with the growing disillusionment of the SCAF’s rule. Others maintain that a new era has begun for Egyptian women, one in which political participation is more widespread and conversations are open to a greater range of voices.  Yet others emphasize that this was mostly a revolution of the urban middle class, with the majority of its most active participants belonging to the liberal, elite, and non-conformist segments of Egyptian society, and as such, the revolution has not reached much of Egypt’s population yet.

One sentiment that was common among all women interviewed, however, was their emphasis on abstaining from overarching judgments about the impact of the revolution on all Egyptian females.  “Not all your fingers are the same,” Mozn Hassan, the Executive Director at the Nazra for Feminist Studies in Cairo, says. She and others interviewed underscored the importance of personal narrative, of asking about their role and experience during the revolution – as an activist, a protester, an individual, a woman – rather generalizing regarding the contribution and impact on Egyptian females as a whole.  Each stressed the value of listening to their own, individual histories and of generating the larger picture from those collective narratives.

What is above are 13 such stories from 13 women.

Full Captions

1. Hand of Shaimaa Lotfi

The issue of women in the Egyptian revolution is one that has been covered repeatedly by numerous news outlets across the world.  In October 2011, I spoke to 13 Egyptian women about the media’s coverage of women’s involvement in the revolution and their own experiences during and after the fall of Mubarak.  Their roles were varied, as were their experiences and reactions to the revolution, with some having actively joined the movement and others forced to do so by circumstance.  All have much to say about how it has effected their lives, and how their experiences are similar to – and different from – those of other Egyptian women.

2. Rasha Ali Abdulraham

Rasha Ali Abdulraham, 28, was at a protest in Tahrir Square on March 9, 2011 when she and 172 other demonstrators, including 17 women, were arrested and forcefully removed from the demonstrations. After being bound and tortured at the Egyptian Museum for seven hours, she and the others were loaded onto buses and brought to Heikstep, a military detention center.  There, the women were forced to divide into two groups: virgins and non-virgins.  She and six others, who identified as the former, were then subjected to ‘virginity tests’ in which military officers examined each woman’s vagina for an extended period of time for the presence of an intact hymen.  When she was released four days later, she wanted to press charges against the military for sexual assault, but was unable to do so due to legal reasons.   Abdelrahman said it took her months to process the trauma and that months later, she still suffers from stress of the incident.

3. Jehad Adel

Jehad Adel, 18, pictured in her grandparents’ house, where she has lived since her father was incarcerated and her mother abandoned her and her two younger siblings last year.  In the opening days of the revolution, Jehad’s father was shot dead while in jail during a rash of shootings in the country’s prisons that left over 100 dead.  Though the reason behind the shootings remains unclear, Jehad and her grandparents continue to demand justice, working with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights to bring his case to court.

4. Shaimaa Lotfi

Shaimaa Lotfi, born and raised in Cairo, loves Miley Cyrus and Justin Beiber, speaks near-perfect English, and hopes to one day move to the United States to work.  Since February 2011, the soft-spoken teen and her mother, Nadia Lotfi (image 8), have found themselves drawn into the Egyptian political and human rights scene; Shaimaa’s uncle, like Jehad Adel’s father, was shot dead while in prison during the opening days of the revolution.  Pieces of the campaign for her uncle can be seen scattered throughout her room, with pictures of her deceased uncle in frames and scanned onto the sides of mugs on her bedside table.

5. Shaimaa Lotfi

Shaimaa stands in her room in Cairo, Egypt.

6. Um Adel Ezbet Abu Hashish

On Saturday, January 29, Um Adel watched as her husband spoke on a cell phone to their incarcerated son, Adel Mahmoud, to confirm what his prison mates had conveyed in an earlier call: “officers are shooting us inside the prison, there are dead bodies lying around the cells and prison corridors.”  Shortly thereafter, he was shot and killed.  She now cares for Adel’s son and two daughters in her small apartment on the top floor of an old and decaying building in Old Cairo.  She is also working to bring Adel’s case to court, and has faced a great deal of resistance from the military, who has repeatedly attempted to cover up the incident – from painting over bullet holes to delaying the collection of evidence in prisons.

7. Sally Zohney

The room of Sally Zohney, an employee of UN Women and an active participant in the revolution since its beginning, is dotted with pictures from her world travels and a collection of encyclopedias that she said were her favorite books to read growing up.  To her, Tahrir Square was a haven of sorts. “It became surreal how perfect the relationship between men and women was,” Zohney says, “For a month I never thought I was a girl.  No one ever looked at me like I was a girl.”

8. Nadia Lotfi

In the opening days of the revolution, Nadia Lotfi’s brother was one of more than 100 prisoners shot dead by Egyptian security guards while serving a prison sentence.  Since February 2011, Nadia Lotfi has been visiting the prosecutor’s office regularly to follow up on her brother’s case.  “Every time I have gone,” Lotfi says, “they have told me the investigation was still going.”  She acknowledges that it will be difficult to see any progress or response from the military, but says that she will continue to push for justice for her brother’s case.  Here pictured in her home in Cairo with some of her deceased brother’s clothing.

9. Mai Hamdi Gheith

Mai Hamdi Gheith, who asked that her age not be disclosed, was raised by highly politically active parents.  But it wasn’t until this past January that she considered entering into politics, following the path of her father, a prominent opposition figure who had been jailed multiple times for his resistance to Mubarak’s regime.  When the protests began in Tahrir Square, she gathered her husband and two kids and went down to the demonstrations.  The pace of the family’s life changed immediately. They would wake up early, spend all day at Tahrir, not returning home until late at night.  Now, she is concerned about the direction her country is headed in, especially the threat of rising religious and social oppression.  She is considering running for office or taking a more active role in politics, citing the fall of Mubarak as opening up a world of possibilities.

10. Gigi Ibrahim

With over 25,000 twitter followers, Gigi Ibrahim is considered a member of Egypt’s Twitterati, able to mobilize thousands with 140 characters or less.  Having played a major part in organizing the revolution, with an especially active online presence, Ibrahim’s role was easily publically available to Western audiences.  As a result, she has received a great deal of attention from the Western media.  Fluent in English, and partially raised in California, she acknowledges that she is an “acceptable face” to those Western audiences, yet she has begun to decline interviews, saying that the countless other women – mothers, daughters, sisters, students, lawyers – who came to Tahrir and marched alongside her, whose stories remain untold, need to be highlighted instead.  She continues to be a key presence in the highly active Egyptian Twitter scene.

11. Samira Ibrahim Mahmud

On the night of March 9, Samira Ibrahim Mahmud was one of the women who was arrested along with Rasha Ali Abdulraham (image 2) while at a protest in Tahrir Square.  She, like Abdulraham, was subjected to a ‘virginity test’ while being held at the military detention center.  Released four days later, she traveled home to rural Upper Egypt, where she suffered for months from emotional trauma and stress in the aftermath of the incident.  But a few months later, she filed an official complaint against the Egyptian military.  About the incident Samira says, “I know that to violate a woman in that way was considered rape. I felt like I had been raped.”  Since filing the complaint on July 1, 2011, she says that she has received death threats on a near-daily basis in the form of phone calls and text messages.   She knows that the court case is an uphill battle, and likely a dangerous one, but she intends to fight.  Asked if she would ever consider leaving Egypt she responds immediately with “No.  No, never.”

12. Samira Ibrahim Mahmud

Human rights activists acknowledge how unusual it is for a woman from rural Egypt to take actions against sexual assault in a country where it is largely a taboo subject, often considered shameful to a woman and her family.  But Samira remains steadfast; “all my energy and my thought now is focused now on violations that could happen against women,” she says.  She maintains that women played a role equal to that of men leading the revolution but that women are afraid now. “We need to break that fear…If there was a young girl in front of me, I would teach her courage and freedom, but not without limits, with moderation. I wouldn’t limit her freedom, but I would show her how to be strong and free, and not fear anything.”

13. Sally Zohney

Sally Zohney, who works at UN Women and has been actively involved in the revolution since the very beginning, is now part of a group called Tahrir Monologues, which performs stories from the eighteen days in Tahrir Square.  She says that the media is far too quick to portray Egyptian women as victims, even though women played an equal part in the revolution.  “The woman is either screaming, crying, or being slapped,” Zohney says.  She hopes that Tahrir Monologues and other movements can combat these negative representations by providing alternative perspectives.

14. Mona Seif

When asked to describe her role in politics, Mona Seif says that she is first and foremost a scientist.  Nothing came before her work in the lab; as of last fall, she was planning on moving to the States to enroll in a PhD program.  But when the political dynamics in Egypt started shifting, she knew she couldn’t leave her country.  Coming from a family involved in the dissident movement, activism and protest were never far from home.  During her during her teenage years, she – like most adolescents – rebelled against her parents, but in her case it was by bringing home politically apathetic boyfriends.  Yet, in January 2011, Seif found herself in the middle of “the tweeting center of the revolution,” as she puts it, where around thirty people worked around the clock to mobilize people on the ground.  Since then, she has helped found No Military Trials for Civilians, which is working to end the use of military tribunals in civilian cases.  When asked if she’s frightened of the intimidation tactics of the military, she says she’s not – because she’s used to it.  “I was raised in a home where the phones were monitored so I really don’t care.”

15. Lamiece Hisham El Layat

The daughter of Mai Hamdi Gheith (image 9), Lamiece went to Tahrir most days during the revolution with her mother, father and brother to protest from early in the morning to late in the evening.  Though her grandfather had been an active opposition figure, her family had refrained from becoming involved in politics until this past January.  But now that her whole family is mobilized, she feels that she has a much more active role to play in shaping the country’s social and political future.

16. Nadia Lotfi

Nadia Lotfi (image eight) tells the story of her brother’s shooting.

17. Mona Makram Ebeid

Mona Makram Ebeid, who is running for the Upper House of Parliament in Shoubra, watches a press conference by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt (SCAF).  When asked by GlobalPost if she lived in Shoubra, Ebeid responded, “No, I live in Zamalek.  I am only running in Shoubra.”  Zamalek, one of wealthiest districts of Cairo, houses many of the city’s political and social elite amongst the high-rise hotels and chic Nile-side restaurants and is starkly different from the largely poor and Coptic neighborhood of Shoubra.

18. Abla Farok Ahmed

A mother of five, Abla Farok Ahmed, 36, was never active in politics.  But when her son was arrested at a protest on false grounds, where he had gone to search for his younger brother who was participating in the demonstrations, the fight quickly became personal.  She enlarged pictures of her son and his friend, their neighbor, who had been arrested with him, and went to the protest to see if she could find any information on their whereabouts.  After months of searching, she received news that he was being detained and tortured at a military detention center outside Cairo.  By the time she located him, he had already faced trial and been found guilty on the fabricated charges for which he had been arrested.  With the help of Mona Seif and No Military Trials for Civilians, she is pressuring for an appeal for son.  She has also begun to organize other mothers to the cause, bringing the group from its original 30 to 700 mothers who protest regularly against military trials.


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