Sunday Magazine ~ February 6 2011
THE OTHER HALF
By KALPANA SHARMA
Far from being ‘stable', Egypt is a country of multiple fissures as the current uprising shows…
The world has been transfixed by the developments in Egypt. Out of nothing, it seemed, an uprising of unbelievable proportions has emerged. Women and men, young and old, rich and poor, have all been heard saying the same thing we want an end to three decades of repression, we want a change. It is as if the steam has been let off from a pressure cooker. There is clearly no going back.
Much of the world saw Egypt as a ‘stable' country in West Asia. For Western nations, it was their most faithful ally. But for Egyptians, the story has been vastly different. For them, Egypt's real face was that of increasing poverty and disparity, of unaccounted riches by the few, of the denial of human rights, of police brutality.
At the time of writing (February 1), it was unclear how this will end. Can this apparently leaderless upsurge lead to a peaceful change? Will the people who lead be able to meet the heightened expectations of millions of people in this most populous Arab country?
Change is here
Whatever the final outcome, the events beginning January 25 have forced the world to look again at Egypt and at Egyptians. We cannot fail to notice the fearlessness of men, as well as women. Within what appears to be a sea of men, you see the women, old and young, conservative and modern and fearless. Yes, the women are there, but sometimes you have to look closely. One of the most striking images doing the rounds on the Internet is that of an elderly woman kissing a rather startled policeman, dressed in full riot gear.
Egyptian women are as vociferous and as articulate as the men even if the media sometimes fails to make the effort to seek out their voices. Thanks to the Internet, we have heard the voices of so many women in the last week, voices that spoke out strongly against emergency laws, against police brutality. These women were not afraid to state their names nor did they mince words.
An Egyptian woman who first gave me an idea of the real situation within Egypt was the remarkable writer, Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi. Her book Woman at Point Zero, about Firdaus, a woman condemned to death for having killed her pimp, is one of the most gripping and moving books I have read. Dr. Sadaawi, a professional psychiatrist, met Firdaus in the notorious Qanatir Women's Prison in the mid-1970s. She narrates Firdaus' story of violence and abuse. But the book also gives us an insight into the life of millions of Egyptians, particularly women, living in conservative rural societies.
Less than a decade later, Dr. Sadaawi was incarcerated in the same prison for her political views and her trenchant opposition to the treatment of women, especially the practice of female genital mutilation. Such criticism was deemed a ‘crime against the State' and over one thousand intellectuals like Dr. Sadaawi were thrown into prison by the government of Anwar Sadat in September 1981.
Her experiences in prison are captured in Memoirs from the Women's Prison, which she wrote on the basis of notes written with the help of a “stubby black eyebrow pencil” and “a small roll of old and tattered toilet paper”.
After her release from prison, she wrote: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”
The repression did not end when Sadat was shot and the present incumbent, Hosni Mubarak took over. Women like Dr. Sadaawi have continued to face problems from the State and from conservative elements, some of whom have functioned under State protection. At one point Dr. Sadaawi chose to leave Egypt and live in exile. Even after she returned, the attacks on her continued.
Looking at the life of just one person like Nawal El Sadaawi gives us an idea of life in Egypt for people who question, who speak out. In fact, the women of Egypt have a long tradition of resistance. They were equal partners with the men who fought against colonial rule. There are newspaper reports from 1919, when Egypt faced political turmoil, that sound almost as if they are describing the scenes on the streets of Cairo of women of all classes coming out to demonstrate against British rule.
Yet, as Nemat Guenena and Nadia Wassef write in their monograph, Unfulfilled Promises, Women's Rights in Egypt (published by the Population Council, 1999), “it has been noted that women's liberation has never come to assume the primacy of political or economic liberation. Women's particular concerns have been, and continue to be, subordinate to those of society, the nation, and development. Also, Egyptian men like their counterparts in the West have resisted the process of redefining gender roles and allowing women more equality.” Sounds familiar, does it not?
In many ways, Egypt represents the typical contradiction seen in many countries where governments accommodate some changes but essentially deny people the right to question. Thus, some progressive changes were made in laws that affect women, but many more were denied. And statistics, such as the gap between male and female literacy, the increasing incidence of violence against women, the continued practice of female genital mutilation that continues to have cultural acceptance, high maternal mortality and low political participation only eight out of 454 seats in the current Parliament are occupied by women reveal the real status of women.
At the moment, the specific concerns of women, or of the poor, will be subsumed under the over-arching demand for a regime change. But in the end, whatever the shape and form of a new government, these basic issues will have to be addressed. One can only hope that the voices of the courageous women and men that are being heard around the world today will not be muzzled.
January 31 2011
Leading Egyptian Feminist, Nawal El Saadawi: "Women and Girls are Beside Boys in the Streets"
Renowned feminist and human rights activist Nawal El Saadawi was a political prisoner and exiled from Egypt for years. Now she has returned to Cairo, and she joins us to discuss the role of women during the last seven days of unprecedented protests. "Women and girls are beside boys in the streets," El Saadawi says. "We are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy and a new constitution, no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians, to change the system... and to have a real democracy."
AMY GOODMAN: We go back right now to Egypt. Joining us on the phone is one of Egypt’s most renowned human rights activists, Nawal El Saadawi. A well-known feminist, psychologist, writer, former political prisoner in Egypt, she lived in exile for years due to numerous death threats. Nawal El Saadawi joins us on the line from Cairo.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Your feelings today in the midst of this popular rebellion against the Mubarak regime, calling on Mubarak to leave? Do you agree?
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: We are in the streets every day, people, children, old people, including myself. I am now 80 years of age, suffering of this regime for half a century. And you remember, Mubarak is the continuation of Sadat. And both Sadat and Mubarak, you know, their regime worked against the people, men and women. And they created this gap between the poor and rich. They brought the so-called business class to govern us. Egypt became an American colony. And we are dominated by the U.S. and Israel. And 80 million people, men and women, have no say in the country.
And you see today that people in the streets for six days, and they told Mubarak to go. He should have gone, if he respects the will of the people. That’s democracy. Because what’s democracy? It’s to respect the will of the people. The people govern themselves. So, really, we are happy.
But what I would like to tell you, the U.S. government, with Israel and Saudi Arabia and some other powers outside the country and inside the country, they want to abort this revolution. And they are creating rumors that, you know, Egypt is going to be ruined, to be robbed, and they are also preventingwe don’t have bread now, and the shops are using this to raise the price. So they are trying to frighten us. They have two strategies: to frighten the people, so we say, "Oh, we need security, we need Mubarak," because people are living in fear. But when I go to the streets, there are no fear, you know, but when I stay at home and listen to the media, I feel, "What’s going to happen?" But when I go to the streets, to Midan Tahrir, and see the people, the young people, the old people, the men, I feel secure, and I believe that the revolution succeeded. So, they are trying to abort the power outside and inside. But we will win.
AMY GOODMAN: And Nawal El Saadawi, you often hear in the United States, "Is this going to be like the Iranian Revolution?" not talking about throwing out the dictator so much, but a fundamentalist revolution. Your response? Nawal?
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: They are frightening us by the Ikhwan Muslimin, and that if Mubarakthey tried for years to tell us that "Who protects us from the fundamentalists, like Khomeini and Iraq? It’s Mubarak." You know, and this is not true. This revolution, the young people who started the revolution and who are continuing to protect it, they are not political, ordinary young men and women. They don’t belong to the right or the left, or Muslim. There was not a single Islamic religious slogan in the streets. Not one. They were shouting for justice, equality, freedom, and that Mubarak and his regime should go, and we need to change the system and bring people who are honest. Egypt is living in corruption, false elections, oppression of women, of young people, unemployment. So the revolution came, it was too late. This revolution is too late, but anyway, it came. So
AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, you have been arrested how many times under previous regimes?
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Sadat. Sadat put me in prison only. But I came out from prison with bars to a prison with no bars. I am living in Cairo in exile. I am censored. I cannot write in Al-Ahram or the big media. I write only one article every Tuesday in Al-Masry Al-Youm.
AMY GOODMAN: And we only have 30 seconds, but I wanted to ask you about the role of women in this rebellion, women and girls.
NAWAL EL SAADAWI: Women and girls are beside boys in the streets. They are and we are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy and a new constitution, no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians, to change the system, to change the people who are governing us, the system and the people, and to have a real democracy. That’s what women are saying and what men are saying.
AMY GOODMAN: Nawal El Saadawi, I want to thank you for being with us, well-known feminist, psychologist. She ran for president in Egypt, speaking to us from Cairo. As we continue tomorrow and with Sharif’s tweets at democracynow.org, here at Democracy Now!
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Egyptian Women Lay Claim to Revolutionary Role
By Dominique Soguel / WeNews correspondent
Women who have been joining the Egyptian protests to oust Mubarak minimize the risk that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood could dominate a future government. If the revolution succeeds, they look forward to playing a part in the transition.
-For Egyptian women in the March of a Million and other street protests to oust authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak, the sometimes deadly demonstrations have been a show of force.
"Women are key actors in this historical moment of Egypt," Mozn Hassan, executive director of the Cairo-based Nazra for Feminist Studies, wrote Women's eNews at 5 p.m. on Feb. 2, moments after the Egyptian army fired warning shots in Cairo in a bid to break up violent clashes. "Women are giving a statement that they are working closely with men to change Egypt."
As a swelling opposition movement clamors for Mubarak's departure by Friday, the protests have turned increasingly dangerous, with armed men on camels and horses tearing through demonstrations as pro- and anti-ruling regime rallies clashed.
On Wednesday, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear agency who is providing the leading voice of the political uprising, expressed concern about a possible "bloodbath" by the armed forces of an increasingly desperate regime.
Rights activists have put Egypt's death toll at over 300 people and the injured at around 500. Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday it had verified 80 deaths at two Cairo hospitals, another 36 in Alexandria and 13 in the port city of Suez, all protest flashpoints.
As authorities scrambled to shut out satellite news channel Al-Jazeera and unplug Internet and cell phone providers, men and women marched out again to the heart of Cairo yesterday morning, which marked the ninth day of continuous demonstrations.
Twitter's Role in Revolution
Twitter has played a key role in helping demonstrators spread the word. Google Inc., the Mountain View, Calif.-based Internet services company partnered with Twitter, the real-time microblogging platform, according to press reports.
On Feb. 1 the two providers of Web-based communication launched a phone-to-tweet platform to help protestors work around the government's tightening grip on media and cell phone communications.
The protest movement--powered by a mix of Islamists and pro-democracy activists from across the political spectrum–demands regime change and has rejected Mubarak's bid to remain in office until the conclusion of his term in September.
While protesters have not produced a detailed agenda for the post-Mubarak era, Western and Israeli leaders have expressed concern over the potential role of an empowered Muslim Brotherhood, linking it to Iran's theocracy and a loss of women's rights.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamist movement and the best organized opposition to Mubarak's regime, is formally banned in Egypt but some of its members, including women, have participated in local elections, running as independents.
Azza Soliman, at the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, is one of many activists underscoring the interreligious and national character of Egypt's unrelenting pro-democracy rallies.
"I want you to know that during the past demonstrations not once has there been an Islamic slogan," she said in a Feb. 2 email. "None of the opposition leaders would attribute this revolution to himself as we witness a popular uprising by the youth of Egypt, which are regular citizens oppressed by Mubarak's regime for 30 years."
Soliman added the movement's leadership is aware and confident in putting together a national coalition to reform the Egyptian constitution and uphold the principles of citizenship and establish a civil state in Egypt.
Women's stance at Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo and their presence in protests across the country is also making an online splash. Women of Egypt, a Facebook group, created a photo gallery to document women's role at the historic hour.
Solidarity Protests Triggered
The uprising has spurred solidarity protests outside Egyptian embassy premises across the Middle East, with large showings in the capital cities of Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as the world.
There have been blackouts.
But the power of Egypt's new tech-savvy generation is shining through and perhaps best captured by the image of a young girl in Cairo with a banner depicting a computer. An arrow sends a desktop icon in the image Mubarak's face straight into the trash can.
The call for democracy not only crossed gender lines, it is also changing street conduct. Nazra for Feminist Studies' Hassan highlighted that women had been able to protest freely without men to protect them and without confronting the usual sexual harassment rampant on Cairo's streets.
"Egyptians citizens gave a message of civility," she said. "During all the last days, no single sexual harassment incident occurred and people were aware of that."
On Feb. 1 women were widely visible on TV; donning sunglasses, hijabs and burkas, wardrobes that mirror the colorful fabric of Egyptian society. Mothers betting on the movement's success brought their daughters out to the streets hoping to witness the coming dawn of democracy.
While the protests have at times turned dangerous and deadly, the unified stance taken by men and women brought a sense of relief to Hibaaq Osman, founder and CEO of Karama (Dignity), a coalition of partners building a movement to end violence against women in the Middle East and North Africa.
In a blog post early on Feb. 2, she wrote proudly about the high turn out of women in the previous day's demonstration.
"Amidst the chaos…we have seen people of all backgrounds, religions, and occupations come together. But more than this, we have watched as men and women dissolved the gender barrier that has long been held between them."