Wearing a bright pink hijab and contrasting blue sweater, a young woman who appears to be in her mid-20s leads a male dominated crowd in a piercing Arabic chant. “What does Mubarak want anyway? All Egyptians to kiss his feet? No, Mubarak, we will not! Tomorrow we’ll trample you with our shoes!” Since January 25, hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians have taken to the streets in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities, pounding the pavements in what has become the largest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in a generation.
What distinguishes these protests is not only their success in bringing Mubarak close to complete capitulation, but also the large number of Egyptian women who have joined their male counterparts at the frontlines of the protests.
These protests have become a tipping point of Egyptian women’s civic participation for a number of reasons. Even with a quota, a paltry 1.8 percent of the seats in Egypt’s People’s Assembly are held by women. Opposition groups, who normally organized such protests in the past, claimed that this number would rise if regime change took place, but their assurances seemed spurious. Women whose needs were not reflected in the policies of these opposition groups had little reason to take the risk of joining in potentially violent protests—police usually hastened to fence in the demonstrators, and confrontations between the two would quickly degenerate into violence.
The most recent protests, however, appear to be an organic, grassroots movement, independent of any political groups; suddenly, women feel that rallying against Mubarak is not only worth the risk, but capable of producing real change.
Apart from the perceived futility of past rallies, Egyptian women have historically shied away from demonstrations for yet another reason—sexual harassment in congested, male dominated crowds. Many Western commentators are quick to prop up Islam as the scapegoat, claiming that such misogynistic behavior is endemic of the religion and the country, but this pat explanation fails to look at the deeper socio-economic reasons behind Egyptian men’s sexually aggressive behavior on the streets.
Unemployment among men 35 and under is more than 15 percent in Egypt (a key reason, of course, why the demonstrators are clamoring for Mubarak to abdicate power). All the while, prospective brides’ parents are demanding increasingly large bridal settlements and real estate, placing marriage squarely out of reach for most of these jobless youth.
For a working-class girl’s family, a marriage to a well-to-do young man can guarantee a spot in the respected social stratum, but for an unemployed man, these high expectations spell bachelorhood an extended adolescence of sorts. Cairo and other major cities are crawling with jobless, infantilized men who Willow Wilson in her novel “The Butterfly Mosque” describes as “still sleeping in their childhood beds and taking orders from their mothers.”
Denied wives and drifting aimlessly without employment, these men vent their frustration, sexual and otherwise, by harassing women on the streets, according to Dr. Helen Rizzo, chair of the Department of Sociology and Psychology at the American University in Cairo.
“The issue is that you have young men that are unemployed hanging out on the street with nothing to do,” she explains. “This is the way they prove their manliness to each other.”
Egyptian women receive little relief from the sexual harassment they endure in most crowded public events, but the past week’s demonstrations have not been marked by the same sort of sexually aggressive behavior. Instead, both the men and the women are single-mindedly focused on political change.
Heba Lashin, 25, told ABC News that in the past she has stayed home during protests. “The risk is too high and the returns are too low,” said Lashin. “I could get groped, and no one is listening to them anyway. But now, we aren’t even thinking about this. We are all only thinking about one thing [revolution].”
(Photo: Sarah Carr)
Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah