You see them on the street, you see them in the stores, you see them with their children, and you see them scrubbing floors. There might be one behind you, or driving in the next lane, but when they want their rights, you simply call them insane.
Today, May 1, Egyptian women are once again protesting in Tahrir Square for their rights. The last attempt on March 8th, to commemorate International Women’s Day, ended with fighting, harassment, and general disrespect for the women’s movement.
By the end of the day we will see whether the protest was successful in organizing enough women to gain attention to pressure the interim government to listen. But their protest is not just a protest to obtain a list of specific demands but a display that women do have a legitimate voice in Egyptian society.
Many Western stereotypes about Middle Eastern or Arab women as being meek or timid truly cannot be farther from the truth. Women here of course have a multitude of personalities so it is not to see that there aren’t meek and timid women – but just that overall this stereotype is far from the truth in Egypt.
During the Egyptian revolution, women turned out in droves to Tahrir Square. In any picture taken during the 18 days of protests leading to President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, women are quite obviously visible. Not just in Egypt but also in Yemen, one of the poorest and most conservative countries in the region, women also took to the streets to protest President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule.
To live in a society that blatantly favors men, a woman has to be strong just to survive day-to-day life.
For example, it is normal for questions to be addressed to the man, even if the question pertains to the woman – like when ordering food in a restaurant or giving directions in a taxi.
Just the other day, when my husband (who is Egyptian) and I went out with a couple friends and the doorman of the restaurant asked my husband something in Arabic. And then, in English, asked my husband about my nationality.
At that point, I interjected and told the guy, “I’m standing right here if you’d like to ask me a question about my nationality.”
“In Egypt, we always direct the question to the man,” he said.
“Well I’m perfectly capable of answering for myself, and it is actually very rude to talk to my husband about me when I’m standing right here,” I replied.
At this point, the guy awkwardly turned to my husband and made some sort of apology in Arabic (also inaccurately assuming I didn’t understand what he was saying) – although it was pretty obvious that he thought I was just being some silly girl.
I’m not the only woman who dislikes being shoved to the side by men of course. One reaction many women seem to have is being more aggressive in pushing people out of the way in crowded stores or when getting on the metro. It is easy to see why this happens when you live in a place where being a woman can be a liability in being heard.
But back to the protest today in Cairo. Women in Egypt certainly face no small number of obstacles – perceptions of women in the workplace, unemployment, under-education, inequality in the treatment of the law, sexual harassment – but to view Egyptian women in any way as being subservient or without a voice would be completely false.
Women first turned up in Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of Mubarak who oppressed and mistreated the Egyptian people for almost thirty years. Now, they are showing up again to demand that women have equal rights and equal treatment.
While obtaining these rights will be difficult, the biggest challenge facing the women that will protest in Tahrir Square today will be proving that they are half of Egypt and half of Egyptians – and for that reason deserve to be listened to.