Analysis: Egypt’s women have a huge stake in their country’s revolution

ON 17 December 2011, Egyptian soldiers stormed Cairo’s Tahrir Square, shooting as they entered.

They killed, beat and arrested unarmed protesters. It was not the first time in recent months the army did this, but this time there was a difference which led to international outrage – a woman was beaten and assaulted by soldiers. The image of a young female protester being dragged along the concrete until her clothes came off has caused irreversible damage to the image of the Army. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her strongest criticism yet of the military calling it “shocking” and a “disgrace”. For Egyptians, the soldiers – once regarded as heroes protecting Egypt’s borders – had crossed a line. One man said to me the army is behaving like a father who beats his wife and kids whilst arguing it is necessary to protect his home.

All the way through Egypt’s revolution women have been instrumental to the struggle. The first female victim of the revolution was Sally Zarhan, in her early 20s. Sally’s image became a symbol of the sacrifice the country was making to get rid of a 30-year dictatorship. If the aim of the uprising was to free people from the grip of the authorities and show them they have a voice, women perhaps even more than any other group in Egypt had a stake in the outcome. To understand this you have to look back at the history of women in the country. Egypt was one of the first Arab countries to give women the right to vote in the 1956 . But in the past few decades women have been marginalised both politically and socially. A conservative, traditional society has pushed women into passive, dependent role.

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When the uprising began at the beginning of 2011, the spontaneous burst of frustration and anger came from women as much as it did from men. Tired of being seen as second class citizens and not being given the same opportunities women went out and protested in the cities. One of he first things that struck me was the amount of women in Tahrir, sitting around having discussions, men listening to what they had to say, women helping to organise and mobilise people. From making sure there were food and blankets to working out a media strategy, women were deeply involved in the business of running a revolution.

In the months since the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, the role of women has continued to evolve. The real test is not if they can hold their ground in Tahrir, but if they can carve a place for themselves outside of it. Bouthaina Kamel, a former presenter on state radio turned democracy activist, has emerged as a the first Egyptian female Presidential hopeful in the country’s modern history. In the media, women like Reem Maged (host on ON TV) and Mona al-Shazly (presenter of one of the most watched evening news shows, Dream2) helped show that women have an audience and a role to play – questioning authority and explaining political situations to the nation. Women had a voice not because they were female, but because they were Egyptian citizens and the revolution had empowered every citizen – making them believe they have a right to a say in the future of their country.

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In the last few months, there has been growing anger and resentment towards the country’s unelected transitional military rulers; a feeling that Egypt has simply swapped one regime for another. In that struggle too women have featured, as shown by the 17 December incident. They went back to the streets and protested for their rights when they felt the revolution being hijacked by the military. When the army cracked down, it was inevitable therefore that women would get caught up. But their humiliation and mistreatment at the hands of the military highlighted the brutal, disproportionate and indiscriminate way in which the army operate, and in so doing embarrassed them into issuing for the first time a statement addressed to women specifically expressing deep sorrow for the “violations”.

The democracy women fought so hard to achieve may bring in political forces that seek to restrict their role in public life. But the anecdote is not to fight against the system but continue to battle for true democracy in Egypt.

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• Sherine Tadros is a correspondent for Al Jazeera English which can be watched on Sky Guide 514, Freesat 203, Freeview 89.