Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Letter from Cairo 9th March 2011

What an enormous disappointment we had yesterday.  When I started writing some time in the afternoon, I affirmed that, yet again, Facebook had been an invaluable tool for the organisation of demonstrations and that a million women were scheduled to take part in a march at 3 p.m.  To my dismay by 7.30 p.m. reports began to reach me that there were only about 300 women in Tahrir Square.  Messages came from friends on the ground and from Pierre Sioufi, whose name I can now mention and who has gained enormous credit for opening his house, which is on Tahrir Square, to masses of people and which I visited several times during the revolution.  Pierre is the friend mentioned in my previous Letters from Cairo who opened his apartment on the top two floors of the building to reporters and correspondents from all over the world, to members of the youth movement itself, to actors, singers and a to variety of artists and friends. 

The massive street demonstrations that we have had since 25th January and which brought down Hosni Mubarak's regime had raised the hopes of many Egyptian women who have long been treated as second-class citizens.  A very significant number of women took part in the demonstrations from the outset of the uprising and while participating they discovered a sense of equality.  Women, like the men, came from all walks of life including throngs of teenagers, sophisticated women in European dress, veiled women, mothers with their children and grey-haired grandmothers. Some of the young women faced opposition by their families who threatened to disown them were they to take part in the demonstrations, but they defied them.

Women stood shoulder to shoulder with the men throughout the revolution and possibly played a pivotal role in it.  They were equally active with their chants, their banners, their cries for the downfall of the regime and for freedom and like their male counterparts, they spent nights in the square, confronted riot police and were attacked and defended themselves against the thugs.

Yet, on their day of hope for equality, not only were they dismally represented, probably because in this patriarchal society the men in their families simply forbade them to attend, but also those who did attend were sadly abused.  According to a friend of mine who was there, and who I shall name ‘Amina’, counter protesters infiltrated the march chanting against the women and harassing them thus forcing some of them out of the square.  Some of the men were chanting “The people demand the fall of women” and “We don’t want secularism, Egypt is an Islamic country”.  It appears that there was also a group of men in front of the women who were ridiculing them and swearing at them.  Others, who were protesting with the women, formed a cordon around the women to protect them.  At this point some pushing and shoving occurred and Amina had her sign torn up and was hit on the head.  The army then advised the women to leave the square for their safety.

The unanswered question here is ‘Who is giving orders to these counter revolutionaries?”.  There are rumours that these men are baltagies or thugs who remain faithful to the old regime.  One of my informers told me that these men were probably employees of the old regime and that they were or still are being encouraged to continue to cause chaos, with promises that if they do so their names will not be mentioned by those who are facing lawsuits for crimes against humanity, such as the ex Minister of the Interior, Habib Al Adly. 

The women who were demonstrating yesterday were also sexually harassed by the thugs.  I should mention here that prior to the revolution Egyptian women had a tendency to avoid appearing in crowded public places because of the invasive, daily unwanted sexual advances made by men of all ages to women of all ages.  This can range from a clicking of the tongue to unveiled propositions to touching of intimate parts of the body all accompanied with desperate sexual hunger in the eyes of the culprits but who also feel that somehow this is their right.  It can be infuriating, to say the least, especially for foreigners who don't possess enough Arabic to hit back with a range of expletives.  Personally, I simply find it irritating, and somewhat surprising at my age, but quite naturally, after 35 years in Egypt, I possess a wealth of particularly effective vocabulary and, when I was somewhat younger, it was not uncommon to see me react physically with a push or a punch or a knee in the groin.

I have always felt much safer walking in the streets of Cairo than I do in the streets of London where I feel apprehension even during the daytime. There I feel a frisson of fear when I see a bunch of youths approaching from the other direction because the menace of mugging is omnipresent.  Whilst I do not condone sexual harassment, it is far less threatening than the risk of being beaten and robbed.  Sadly, in these post revolution weeks women are feeling a lot less safe and instead of gaining the freedom and equality that yesterday was supposed to instigate, there is a sense of defeat and intimidation.

Women in Egypt face many constraints; they have restricted legal rights, can face domestic violence, are discriminated against in the workplace where their salaries are much lower than those of the men and where chances for promotion are slim. Most importantly, they have little, if nothing, to say in the running of the country.  The Million Women March had six main goals which were printed on banners and distributed on flyers:

1.   The right for women to participate in laying the constitutional, legislative and political future of Egypt
2.   A new civil constitution which respects citizenship, equality and cancels all forms of discrimination.
3.   A change in all forms of laws including the personal status law to guarantee equality.
4.   The playing down of woman’s role as a mother as opposed to all her other roles, whether in her private or public life.
5.   The placing of harsh penalties on all forms of violence towards women.
6.   Allowing women to run for president.

Let us not forget, however, that women in Egypt are far better off than women in some other parts of the Muslim world; they are not forced to wear the Niqab, which covers the entire body and the face, leaving a small slit for the eyes or the Hijab, which covers the hair and the neck. 

I must point out, however, that when I first arrived in Egypt in 1974, I saw very few women wearing the Hijab and absolutely none wearing the Niqab yet now, in 2011 it is unusual to see uncovered heads and the full cover is becoming more and more apparent.  Nevertheless something of a dichotomy exists here and on several occasions I have seen veiled women wearing sprayed-on clothes and thick layers of make-up which appears somewhat duplicitous.  On the whole, however, the women dress discreetly and one might almost say that Western influence has been waning for some time.  This is perhaps not surprising if you look at the behaviour of a certain class of young women in, for example, the U.K. who wander the streets drunk, scantily dressed and whose sexual antics in public, both at home and more particularly abroad, leave a lot to be desired.

Meanwhile, although the news going out of Egypt has been somewhat obliterated by the horrifying events in Libya, the air is still very unsettled.  There have been continual nationwide labour protests all over Cairo and its suburbs and throughout Egypt, with workers demanding better pay and working conditions in a wide variety of sectors.  Hundreds of Copts have held demonstrations before the TV building in downtown Cairo, and elsewhere protesting the torching of a Coptic church in Helwan, and demanding an end to discrimination and fully equal rights of worship.  The 25 January revolution was believed to have brought Muslims and Christians together which led to great hopes especially as last year Egypt witnessed more than the usual incidences of sectarian strife. 

There are very few members of the police force in the streets and as a result traffic is totally chaotic and the number of crimes is on the increase.  There have been many reports of cars being stopped at gunpoint and thugs beating the occupants and forcing them to hand over their possessions.  This occurs mostly after dark on the highways and ringroads.

Until a new government is formed and one which pleases the people we have a long tiring road ahead of us but one must remain optimistic.

1 comment:

  1. It is saddening and yet very interesting to get this mitigated vision of the egyptian post-revolution, concerning the situation of women : from abroad, we tend to get only the stories of the perfect tahrir triumping days, "all social classes and genders mixed in harmony". Well things don't change in a day do they ?... Come on ladies, don't give up !!!