Thursday, February 17, 2011

How during the revolution Egyptian women recaptured the streets

Guest author: Noha Radwan

On the morning of Wednesday, February 2nd, I woke up in the apartment of my longtime friend, Nagla, a journalist whose apartment was only a fifteen minutes walk away from Tahrir Square. By virtue of its location, the apartment, which is normally occupied by Nagla, her husband and 25 year old daughter had turned into ‘uprising central.’ It was where we slept, ate and showered between the daily 10-12 hour shifts of protesting on the square. It was also where we logged onto the internet and gazed at al-Jazeera whenever that was an option. “We” were Nagla’s women friends, Sherin, Nagwan, Magda, and Omaima who was there with her two college age daughters, and myself. February 2nd was the eighth of the 18 days that toppled Egypt’s dictatorship of thirty years, and it was only my fourth day, yet for me it will always mark the day on which the revolution was won.
Noha Radwan
Flying from California and trapped at Heathrow for eight hours, thanks to the curfew that was imposed on the country on Friday afternoon, I had only arrived on Saturday morning. That was some Saturday! By the time I had arrived on the square, it was packed. People were standing shoulder to shoulder and the chants could be heard a mile away. I was struck not only by the ubiquitous female presence on the square but the integration of the female chanters in the crowd. Every once in a while, one or the other of the women would even lead: “Isma’ kilmit masr el-hurra, Ya Mubarak itla’ barra,” Listen to free Egypt, Mubarak, get out.” And her chant would be repeated by thousands of followers.

This was truly ‘free Egypt’. Women and men were equally participating in the ousting of the dictatorship whose policies have fueled extremism, sectarian violence and a wave of sexual harassment that have made women’s presence in Egyptian public spaces a risk. Reports of women, both veiled and unveiled, becoming subjects of physical and verbal sexual harassment have filled the Egyptian media and websites during the past years. Most notorious was the mob attacks on women in downtown Cairo during the celebration of Eid al-Fitr (the post-Ramadan Muslim holiday) in 2006. Women on the metro and the busses were frequently the target of sexual slurs and abuses, and were touched, grabbed and molested in broad daylight. According to a report by the National Council for Human Rights in Egypt, 83% of Egypt’s working females have been victims of sexual harassment at one time or another. Yet on Tahrir Square, there was no fear of such thing. At the times when space was at a premium and everyone was crammed together, the men on Tahrir were going out of their way to assure the women of their safety from any form of harassment and provocation. I thought about the report’s investigations into the reasons why men sexually abuse women on the streets of Egypt. The desire to exercise and prove their ‘manliness’ was among the top ones. Perhaps for the men in Tahrir it wasn't necessary to prove anything anymore. They had faced police forces with live ammunition, and were surrounded by army tanks, in an unpredictable atmosphere.

Every day I went to Tahrir, I wore blue jeans and a light shirt with a jacket or sweater on top. My friends wore jeans, slacks and skirts. None of us covered our hair. On the square we sat next to women who wore western clothes and covered their hair, others who wore a head-scarf that was large enough to drape over their chest and back down to the waist. Some had their faces covered. We shared space and conversation, food and drink. Some smoked, others did not. At prayer times, some of them joined in, others did not. On Tahrir, a woman’s religion, Islam or Christianity, and her piety were irrelevant. What mattered was that we were there, protesting a regime that has impoverished, marginalized or terrorized millions. Off the square, I was asked if it was true that the women on Tahrir brought food for the protesters. I am sure they did. I did. And I was offered food by other women, and by other men. But women did other things as well. Women physicians volunteered in the make shift clinic that was patched up on a side street. Women Lawyers gave speeches on the square’s makeshift ‘radio,’. Women were part of the ‘security’ team that searched incomers to the square for fear of saboteurs carrying in weapons. Women sat in front of the tanks to prevent their movement. We felt strong, empowered and united, with each other and with the male protesters. Come what come may, we have taken back the streets.

Black Wednesday
When, on February 2nd, the regime once again showed its ugly face, it was too late. This is how I saw that day that soon came to be called ‘Black Wednesday’. I was the first to leave the apartment and go back to the square. A maudlin speech by President Mubarak the night before in which he promised to step down at the end of his term, and appealed to the Egyptians to let him die at home, had left opinions somewhat divided. “What’s another few months,” some said. Others contended that Mubarak could not be trusted and that an unfinished revolution would be a prelude for disaster. The speech was almost immediately followed by small sporadic rallies on a number of streets, which were more farcical than disconcerting at this stage. Judging by the impunity with which these ‘supporters’ broke curfew in the middle of the night, we had no doubt that they were there upon the directives of the president or other members of the regime. On my way to the square, I ran into a group of those ‘Mubarak supporters.’ In my newly found Tahrir spirit I walked up to one of them and said: How can you support a brutal and corrupt president?
“He said he was going to carry out reforms.” the man replied. “And these protestors are paid.”
''Paid or not, how can you trust someone to suddenly turn good after thirty years of repression?” I asked. Upon which he retorted: “Why don’t you go home, bitch?”
On the square I walked around, chatted and chanted and was soon joined by many friends. They told us about an increasing presence of violent crowds outside the square,. But since I had agreed to give an interview to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, I had to go to a recording studio, a walk of about fifteen minutes.
I went there well ahead of time and sat in an office full of foreign reporters, who were all coming in with reports of attacks, insults and destruction of their equipment. At three in the afternoon, I recorded my interview and after that went back to the square. It was near the Egyptian museum that I came across the real thugs. They were hurling rocks into the square. I walked through several rows before one caught on and asked me where I was going. I made up a story about a nephew who was hurt inside, said that I was going to take him home. “No, you stay here, he said. We can get him.” A second later someone else asked: So you are not with them? Are you with us?'' My mind was racing. Would I fool him by giving a fraudulent answer? How can I make it past this crowd? I froze for a few seconds, and then when I thought I had an opportune moment, I dashed past a few more rows. I was less than four feet away from the army barricades around the square. If I had crossed them, I would have been in, safe from the thugs. But I was not so lucky. From behind I heard someone cry, “She is with them. Get her!” And before I realized what was going on I had my arms seized by two musclemen who walked me away from the square. “All I could hear as the mob closed in on me was: “she is with them... with them… the agents… the Americans, a Baradei’s dirty supporter.”
Thugs in action
Many pulled my hair while others volunteered slaps and slurs. In a matter of seconds my shirt was ripped open and my mouth was full of blood. We passed an army tank and I saw the officer on top. “Help!” I screamed. The soldiers were waiting for his orders. Bystanders called on him. “They are going to kill her,” someone said. All my energies were focused to staying conscious, putting my head up for air and down to avoid further hits. I wrapped my jacket around my body and my shoulder bag, which had my ID and my camera, and cried for the officer’s help again. Finally he ordered the soldiers to jump into the crowd and pull me up. They led me into the inside of the tank where I joined a few other soldiers. They pointed out that my head was bleeding. I had not yet registered my head injury, which must have been caused by a rock projectile. I had also not registered that my phone was stolen out of my back pocket and that a gold chain was ripped off of my neck. One of the soldiers offered me a big kerchief to staunch the bleeding and another held out his water bottle. I could hear the crowds raging outside. Two other young men, one of them a journalist, were brought into the tank a little later. Both were more badly injured, and it was not until darkness fell, about two hours later that the officer felt that it was safe enough for him to call an ambulance that took us to a nearby hospital. My injuries were indeed less serious than those suffered by the two other protestors. As I learned later, others yet suffered much more serious injuries. A young woman, Sally Zahran, who died of brain hemorrhage was attacked not far from where I was attacked. Mubarak’s thugs unleashed their ugliest face and to top it off, they resorted to their not unfamiliar technique of ripping the clothes off of female protesters. 

Maybe unbeknownst to them, they were helping the protests win one of their final battles with the regime, calling to public memory images of another Black Wednesday, May 25, 2005. On that day, now six years ago the Egyptian public protested the notorious amendment to article 76 of the constitution, which effectively limited the candidacy for president to someone put forward by the ruling party. Then, like now, the police responded with its familiar measures of repression. Then, like now, women were singled out. Human rights organizations filed numerous reports of women being sexually assaulted. Journalists, lawyers, others had their clothes ripped and were striped down to their under garments. Black Wednesday was followed by similarly dark Thursdays and Mondays. The regime’s thugs counted on those measures to intimidate female activists and to ensure that those assaulted would never show their face in public again. Yet they did. I saw many of them in Tahrir on the days that followed Wednesday February 2nd. Seeing them, I knew we would win, and that it was a matter of time before members of the regime would be the ones to hide their faces. I also knew that in the years’ long struggle of the Egyptian women to end Mubarak’s dictatorship and bring democracy home, they had found the means to take back the street.

Noha Radwan, born in Cairo, is assistant professor of comparative literature at The University of California Davis. 

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