I went to Tahrir Square at around 6:30pm expecting a small, marginal crowd of women who would have bothered (or dared) to respond to the calls for a general protest against the brutality of the army in stripping, molesting and harassing female protestors a few days earlier. There were many reasons to expect a low turnout: for one, most Egyptians are sick and tired of protests and they want to get on with life. They are exhausted, energy depleted and believe enough is enough. For another, the army and the Islamists had managed to turn public opinion against them: they were the thugs, the unruly ones, the dissidents, those who disrupt, who are keeping the rest of the population from moving forward – or so the mainstream media has people to believe. Second, the army has no qualms in using its military clout to terrorize and obliterate and the images are enough to send chills down anyone’s spine, let alone go out and face them. Third, any protest to claim women’s rights is usually small. Lets be honest here: the country does not exactly have a civil or political society that is sympathetic to women’s issues. But instead I found Tahrir Square full of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands of women congregated despite the fact that Tahrir Square was completely dark – presumably a strategy by the army to dissuade people from joining and to allow it to strike away from the public and international gaze.
In order for me to join the protests I first I had to pass through the rows of men who had formed a cordon around the women protestors. A few months ago when I joined a protest in Tahrir Square, I refused to bow to the idea of men on the outside, women on the inside. I had felt enraged: the women don’t need protecting, we are perfectly capable of protecting ourselves, thank you very much. But this time it was different – the army had shown that they will target women specifically to molest, to grope, to humiliate. And we needed the strength of numbers.
This was a deeply moving demonstration. The women in Tahrir Square were of all ages, veiled, non-veiled women, those with children, those barely able to walk. The men who formed the cordon were equally diverse. Women were leading in shouting the slogans, and people answered back. While women took part fully in the uprisings that led to the ousting of Mubarak, this demonstration was different: they were more than participants, they were the leaders. They spoke, and everyone listened. They shouted and everyone- men and women responded back . And it was not just the urban women who were leading, it was the village women in their black gallabiyyas who were raising their voices and everyone answering back even louder. As people marched around and around in Tahrir Square carrying banners against the military, carrying a large picture of the woman who was stripped and dragged from her hair across the square by a soldier, while another soldier was shown about to stomp her bare stomach with his shoe-the determination not to let this rest was strong. I heard a young man say to another “my God, I never thought these women could be so strong. They are mightier than the Ultras” (The Ultras were the football club supporters who had protected Tahrir Square from Mubarak’s thugs during the 18 days uprisings). Another asked his companion: “do you think these women will lead the next revolution in this country?”
At some point, the protesters were joined by hundreds of sheikhs from Egypt’s ultra-conservative Islamic establishment, Al Azhar, to express their anger at the murder of Sheikh Emad who was shot dead by a soldier’s bullet while peacefully protesting a few days earlier. The voices in Tahrir Square were united in their call: “Down, down with the military regime”, “The revolution is on-going” “Revolution, revolution until victory” people chanted, and “Leave! Leave! Leave!”.
But this was not a call for general freedom, this was a call to redeem the women of Egypt who had been sexually assaulted by sending out a clear message “Raise your head high, you are more honourable than those who tread on you.” This slogan was chanted over and over again. The women who were stripped, who were assaulted need not bow their heads low in shame, they were to be recognized as heroines: their flesh was exposed but they were now clothed with greater dignity and respect. There is no shame but the shame of the army: “Instead of protecting us, you strip us!” women chanted and in a show of defiance, continued: “Is this manliness? Come and strip us all, we are here in Tahrir Square”
And for those who had any illusion that this was about women united, the slogan chimed loud and clear “Not the [Muslim] Brothers, not the [political] parties, it is the women in Tahrir!”. Of course beneath the display of collective will, there are differences – differences that are probably significant enough to explain why this women’s movement joined by hundreds of sympathetic men is not a feminist movement.
When one of the women shouted out “There is no God but Allah, the martyr is the beloved of God”, I yelled back “No! No! No! Madaniyya, madaniyya [civil]”.
The young women next to me looked at me in bewilderment “What is wrong with There is no God but Allah?”
“Because it is a religious slogan. And this protest is civil. There are hundreds of civil slogans we can use instead”
“But the Christians don’t mind.”
“How do you know that?” I answered
“Because they have not objected. Anyway, when they don’t like a slogan, they can just keep quiet and not reply back with the others”
So much for inclusive democracy.
The warning to El Mosheer Tantawy, the commander of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was clear and loud: “O ye Mosheer, be you patient, the women of Egypt will dig your grave”. The words that terrorized the population were thrown back, reclaimed and given new meaning, it was no longer the authorities that pronounce the red lines, new ones were being proclaimed in Tahrir: “The women of Egypt are a red line!”.
For the passers-by, the women protestors pointed to the rows of men who had formed the cordon: “Here are the men, where are the rest of you [men]?”. The pleas to Egyptians was made over and over again: “Come down now, join us, we will not bow down, we will raise our voices”. But the plea mostly fell on deaf ears. The call for a revolution in every alley, in every street was not having the inspirational impact it was supposed to generate: the authorities had allowed the general security situation to collapse to a point where chaos was feared by all, and stability revered above all. Then again, you never know what happens next. Within and outside Tahrir Square, many are saying: a second revolution is going to happen so watch this space.
Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and will be publishing IDS Bulletin 43.1 ”The Pulse on Egypt’s Revolt” in January 2012