The Women in the Square

February 9, 2011

Women protestors, Cairo, 28 January 2011. Photo by Sarah Carr

One of the most inspiring sights seen in Tahrir Square this eventful February have been groups of Egyptian women who have braved riots and intimidation by pro-Government forces to join the protests.

At a time, when fundamentalist forces in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan are trying to drive women out of the public sphere, the actions of Egyptian women demonstrate the vitality of women striving for a political voice.

Even while human rights groups have reported casualties as high as 300 and protesters gathered in the square have suffered everything from being charged by horses to being shelled by tear gas and live ammunition, Egyptian women have remained visible and refused to be intimidated.

In addition to providing the world with a testament to the vibrant energy of Egyptian women, their participation has also demonstrated that it is grassroots activism rather than top down quotas that ultimately give women a voice in politics.

In late June of last year the Mubarak Government passed a law creating a special quota for women’s participation in politics.  Reserving a set number of seats for women in the Lower House of Parliament the law aimed at increasing women’s participation in the public sphere.  However, according to Fatma Emam, an editor for Nazra an Egyptian journal for feminist studies, the visibility of women in the protests at Tahrir Square has done far more for promoting empowerment and political awareness among Egyptian women than the reserved quota ever did.  Fatma says:

“The women in Tahrir Square have proven that they can fight and overcome the weak participation of women when they see that they are equal in protest and that their destiny is tied to the country like everyone else”.

The solution in her words is not a paternalistic top down quota but the fight against patriarchy in every household and street led by ordinary women.

As women continue to stream into Tahrir Square, the world can see the face of an emerging Egypt that is male and female, Muslim and Christian and united in its call for civil rights and institutional reform.  This new generation of Egyptian women so bravely defying the dictates of patriarchy and emerging on the streets of Cairo are a message to the world that their identities cannot be simply reduced to their faith or their headscarf.

As their voices echo in the Square and their bravery is seen by millions around the world, they make a powerful statement for the ubiquity of the quest for equality and empowerment.