Tahrir Square, 8th March: not a good day for women
9 March, by Glen Johnson
The posters were torn to shreds, laying in scattered piles
at the south end of Midan Tahrir, where Egypt’s
anti-government protests began on 25 January. Some had
giant X marks scrawled across them, others had been
covered in writing reading “Not now.” All the posters were
covered by the marks of dirty shoes, as hundreds of
reactionary Egyptian men trampled them underfoot.
The posters were simple in their few demands, aired as
part of International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate
women’s achievements and promote gender equality. They
called for harsher punishments against sexual harassment —
a constant barrage of slurs and sexual innuendo are
directed against women in Egypt every day. They called for
fairer representation in parliament, and a woman to stand
for Egypt’s presidency.
In short, they called for acknowledgment of women’s
rights. For equality.
Just before nightfall, women were scattered around the
square in small numbers, surrounded by at least 500 men,
possibly more. I saw a pack of around 150 men driving
forward, as a lone women protected by a handful of
relatives and friends yelled at the men, who were working
themselves into a frenzy. The woman, wearing jeans and a
t-shirt climbed over a barrier and began running across
the grass outside the Mogamma building in the square. She
was pursued by a mob of men who were fought back by a
handful of people desperately attempting to protect her.
Eventually, when the woman’s safety was seriously
threatened, two soldiers intervened with truncheons,
beating back the mob of screaming men. The soldiers left,
and the woman fled across the street.
I saw a young western woman running across the street,
east of Tahrir, holding her head, a group of men stalking
away behind her. And I watched as three women stood in
Tahrir in front of another mob of men, simply holding
their posters, completely surrounded by the mob. One man,
Yousef, dressed in a well-cut suit and wearing Oakley
sun-glasses, was yelling at the three women. “Not now,” he
chanted, in chorus with the rest of the mob. Yousef
explained, with a slight American accent, that Egyptians
could not focus on the grievances of one group of people.
“It is about all Egypt now. We have to stand together. No
one group should act alone. We have other goals first.
Later they can talk about what they want.”
His sentiments were repeated again and again by other
reactionary men. An engineer called Abdul-Wahab told me
that foreigners were making trouble, forcing women they
were having sex with to come out and protest.
Since January, waves of protest have swept across Egypt.
From Coptic Christians demanding an end to the
discrimination they face to widespread labour unrest.
Workers have been demanding an end to workplace corruption
and better salaries.
These labour protests are a daily occurrence across all of
Egypt and are a direct result of the regime’s neo-liberal
policies which undercut workers rights. Tens of thousands
of workers have been airing their demands, through
sit-ins, walk-outs and street protests. Not once have
these protests been shouted down by mobs of men. Indeed,
Abddul-Wahab had been out protesting for workers’ rights
Why then the difference for women demanding rights or
simply airing their grievances? “This is not the time,”
A group of female journalists from a local magazine had
prepared banners earlier in the day. Some of them wept as
a group of men forced them out of Midan Tahrir. One man,
his eye covered in a bandage from an injury sustained
during the anti-government protests, was screaming at the
young women. A young child yelled “Yalla” (‘hurry up’ or
‘go’) repeatedly at them.
Speculation has focused on whether Egypt has really been
through a revolution, or not. Most Egyptians will say it
has. But a revolution should not simply mean the overthrow
of a political system - which has not yet happened in
Egypt. A real revolution should entail widespread social
reform, or at the very least give rise to an environment
in which problems endemic to a society are verbalised and
In the 2010 World Gender Gap Report, Egypt was ranked
125th out of 134 countries. It performed worst in regard
to the political empowerment of women.
But that is not all. Harassment of women is a constant.
Marital rape is widespread. Along with the rest of the
Middle East, sexual abuse of children within the wider
family is remarkably high, but remains largely unreported.
More than 80 percent of women are circumcised, though the
government has attempted to stamp out the practise, for
which there is no religious justification: it is not
mentioned in the Quran, but is referred to in the Hadith.
The abhorrent display by Egyptian reactionaries to the
women in Midan Tahrir took some by surprise. Ahmed, a
translator and Arabic teacher, said that he was “shocked”
by the events. “After what we went through together here,
I can’t believe I am seeing this,” he said.
Many women had reported an end to sexual harassment during
the 18 days of Egyptian protest in Tahrir Square. However,
as soon as Mubarak stood down, harassment started again. A
point which Egyptian women reiterated time and again. The
night of Mubarak’s resignation, there were numerous cases
of sexual assault, most involving groping and verbal
The demands made by the women in Midan Tahrir on
International Women’s Day were legitimate — and essential
for Egypt to progress. Demanding equality cuts deep.
Actually listening to these demands cuts much deeper.
The problems associated with Middle Eastern patriarchy,
corruption, autocracy and discrimination can all be
addressed, challenged and eventually changed through a
fundamental acceptance of equal rights. But the scenes in
Midan Tahrir on International Women’s Day have called into
question the ability of Egypt to adapt and change. Those
who failed to protect the female protestors – indeed those
who failed to join the protest – are just as accountable
as the reactionaries whose backwardness was on display.
For Farida, an editor at a local magazine, who was shouted
out of Midan Tahrir, her day began in optimism. “It was
going to be like a school trip. We made our funny signs
and wanted to be there to stand up for women. I did not
expect such hatred, not after we had all stood together in
Midan Tahrir,” she said. “Some men told us that the
closest we would ever get to a president is if we gave
birth to one. There were so many men we couldn’t even see
the women. They got so aggressive with us saying: ‘What
the hell are you doing here, you should go home.’ They
started pushing women, some got kicked, had their cameras
taken. They were saying ‘no’ to us. Couldn’t they have
given us a couple of hours? What is the problem? In the
future I hoped things would get better. After today,
Once again, the Egyptian military failed in its duty to
protest legitimate protestors from attacks. Soldiers
argued that they could only follow orders and could not be
seen to be taking sides: they would lose legitimacy if
Leaving Tahrir, I watched as a man used his foot to drag
two pieces of torn poster together. He stood, with another
man, reading through the list of women’s demands. A smirk
and look of puzzlement spread across his face.
Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist based in Cairo.
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