International Women's Day from Midan Tahrir
When I arrived in Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day last Tuesday, the sight of an overwhelmingly male crowd surprised me. This, of course, would have been normal at any other time - but this day had been set apart as a day to celebrate women, to march and claim the equal rights of all Egyptians - male and female. Where, then, were the women whose rights and liberties were to be held up this day?
The first two Egyptian girls that I found told me that they were studying at the American University in Cairo, that this was their first time coming to Tahrir since the protests started in January, and that they thought it was ridiculous to hold a march calling for the right of women to become president to be included in the constitution. “It would not be appropriate for a woman to be president – women do not have the experience and knowledge of politics that men do,” they stated firmly. I pressed them further, asking if they thought it was important to secure the right of future women who might be able to gain more experience to become president, but there was no response.
As I went on, I was stunned to hear the numbing idea that my value, as a woman, is found in my reproductive capacity. I had never before been told that my uterus is what gives me worth – but in this moment, no mention was made of my intelligence, nor of my talents, nor of the individual that I am or the potential that I represent. I bore the pain of this statement for one day. I cannot imagine what it must be like to live under this oppressive mentality for a lifetime, as I’m sure many Egyptian women (and other women around the world) are forced to do.
At one point, a small crowd gathered when they heard the blond foreigner speaking some Arabic. One man stepped over and declared that there is no such thing as harassment in Egypt; he and all the other men in the vicinity agreed that they would stand up for any woman if they ever saw someone harassing her on the streets. I wanted to ask them all, "Where were you, then, when two teenage boys drove past me on a motorcycle last month, grabbed my breast, and then rode away through the traffic, looking back at me with wide grins of pride on their faces? Where were you when a group of young men passed me as I walked down the street to my Arabic classes, pushed one of their friends towards me, causing him to knock into me, and then marched away sneering in their sense of power over me? Where are you every day when men tell me to come home with them as I pass them in the streets, stare at me lustfully despite my conservative clothing, and jokingly beg me to marry them, making my Egyptian friends flush with embarrassment at their behavior?"
Once upon a time, I thought I was a victim of this harassment in the streets of Egypt because of my obviously foreign appearance - blond hair, blue eyes, you get it. But then one of my veiled Muslim friends, a graduate student at the American University in Cairo, shocked me by telling me that she is morally against the use of veils by women for religious reasons, that she and many of her friends do not believe it is right or pleasing to God that women cover themselves, yet they feel forced to do so because it is the only way that they have found to avoid harassment in the street.
As the afternoon in Tahrir went on, I found my way to the southern side of the square where I was very pleased to find many women finally gathered with banners proclaiming their equality. There were several men among them, too, standing up in support of the women. What a hopeful sight! Yet as I approached, another gathering of men started chanting slogans from the revolution but replacing the name "Mubarak" with the word "women." "The people want the downfall of women!" men screamed in unison with all their might. It was terrifying. And deeply heartbreaking. Out of the corner of my eye I saw several men gawking in my direction before approaching me and asking, "How do you think we could EVER have a female president? What, do you want us to go to work in the KITCHEN?" This blatant mentality of patriarchy was something I had never before experienced in my life. I was livid as I turned and fled the scene. Where was the logic in what they were saying? What was it that made them think - because of the difference in our sexes - that they would be capable of leading a country while I would only be fit to prepare their food? Even more disheartening was my certainty that I have been blessed to receive far more education than they had - yet no amount of knowledge or experience was a match for being male in their minds.
You may not think a middle-class, white American girl like me would have any sense of what oppression against women really feels like. If that is true, it is because my mother bore the brunt of this sexist oppression for me. Growing up in a small Midwestern town, she was never told that she - being a girl - had potential. While her brothers were cheered on as they pursued higher education and became doctors and businessmen, my mother - every bit as smart as her brothers - was told that since she was a girl, she had three career options in life - becoming a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. Even now, as she overcomes this oppressive legacy by pursuing a graduate degree in psychology years later, support from her family and place of origin has been hard to come by. Yet her struggles have opened the way for my sister and me - we have always been encouraged to pursue any and all opportunities available to us. Thanks to the struggle of women like my mother, never in my life have I even imagined that I might not be able to accomplish something because of my being female. Yet because of my mother’s experiences, I can sympathize with other women who still experience inequality.
This afternoon I went down and played soccer with my doorman's daughters in the street in Cairo - an activity generally deemed appropriate for boys only. Their squeals of delight as we ran about filled me with joy at their expression of freedom. When we finally sat to rest, they shared with me that they enjoy playing with the young men in the neighborhood, too, but that it’s not acceptable. “They say that we women in Egypt are like delicate crystal, that we must be protected from everything,” they stated, then broke out in hysterical laughter at the absurdity of the thought. "But now, after the revolution, there's freedom!" they cried enthusiastically.
I smiled at the beautiful simplicity and genuineness of their hopes for Egypt after the revolution. To be sure, the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square did proclaim democracy, freedom, and justice for ALL Egyptians – male or female, Christian or Muslim, rich or poor. Sadly, my experiences lead me to think that the innocent comment of my doorman’s daughters will not prove to be true unless many, many dedicated individuals struggle to make it a reality. My dearest hope for Egypt is that these young women, and many people like them, will take it upon themselves to struggle towards a better, freer and more equal society for those that come after them - just as my mother did for me.