Women, equity and democracy in Egypt: From Tahrir Square to my kitchen
11 March 2011 - Hania Sholkamy
The following is a diary extract from Hania Sholkamy, convener of the Middle East hub of the IDS Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research Consortium. It is a sober reminder of why we still need International Women's Day.
On 8 March 2011, there were a multitude of demonstrations for various causes in downtown Cairo. But despite this effervescence of protest and the openness with which Cairo has been blessed since 11 February when Hosny Mubarak resigned, the demonstration by women commemorating International Women's Day and standing peacefully in Tahrir square is the only demonstration that was attacked, harassed, ridiculed, shouted down and ultimately chased out of the square. No other demonstrators were heckled, told that their demands are unjustified, unnecessary, a threat to the gains of the revolution, out of time, out of place, and the product of a 'foreign agenda'. No other demonstrators were told to 'go back home and to the kitchen'. No others were heckled for how they look and what they were wearing.
When we congregated at around three o'clock, we sensed a brewing resentment amongst the hundreds of almost all male protestors protesting against us and blocking traffic. 'Go home and make mahshy' I was told. In unison, they were saying 'batil' (illegitimate) to the demands for gender equity and 'awra' (ignominy) to women standing with their frankly innocent and almost naïve demands. 'Back to the kitchen' and 'off the square' were other chants. One elderly gentleman said that the posters held by the women demonstrators were an offence to the good women who were 'mothers of the martyrs', who deserve respect and rights not like these women who deserve nothing. Then young men fired up by the imagery he was invoking started snatching our posters, tearing them up and throwing them at the quite baffled, dejected, astounded men and women.
This gives a feel of what happened yesterday and continues to happen to any political action undertaken in Egypt by feminists and equity advocates.
Though women and men together planned and sustained the protest for democracy in Egypt and movement had been gender neutral, yesterday, the square was witness to the flight of tens of harassed women as their opponents ran them off the square. So how do we reconcile the symbolism of the square as a forum for expression and freedom with its current chaos? How do we sustain justice and gender rights? How do we support the values of the revolution in the face of the neglect or animosity of revolutionaries?
Evidently the space of protest is not a neutral one when it comes to questions of gender. But there are more important lessons with which we need to contend:
The first is that democracy may not deliver equal rights for women. Democracy can become a tyranny if not tempered by a commitment to basic principles and freedoms. It has been easy to get millions to agree to jettison Mubarak. It will be hard to get them to agree on what comes next. Whatever the politics of our future governments and legislatures may be, some basic principles of rights and freedoms have to be clearly stated and not left to the vagaries of elections. All free nations have imposed limits on the ability of people to harm or undermine their compatriots. This is a position we need to realise and cement into our national psyche.
The second lesson is that women should focus on demanding democratic processes that enable them to have voice and realise achievements. We should perhaps have demonstrated to dissolve the national machinery known as the National Council for Women and create a new body formed of civil society organisations with an elected board that is accountable to its constituents. We should insist on quotas for women within every new and old political party so as to insure that all politics are gendered. We should lobby for participatory policy councils that oversee the services we require from the state. These local councils would consult their citizens when planning health, social protection, education, policing and housing policy through a legally binding process. Perhaps women can realise citizenship-focused democracy by demanding the mechanisms that deliver justice to all.
There are no avenues to women's political empowerment that do not traverse the landscape of politics as a whole. Quotas in a rigged election, accesses to high office in the absence of transparency and accountability, local council representation without good governance or voice without freedom do not deliver gender justice. A set programme does not circumscribe the demands for freedom and change that we hear now in Egypt. The recommended recipe that forms development agendas fades when faced with genuine will and human quests for dignity and choice. So we should mull over the significance of yesterday's stand-off and see it as a premonition of things that could come if we do not reconsider the strategies that a woman's movement needs to adopt to wade into democratic territories.
Meanwhile we must not lose hope or humor and since my friends say I am a good cook, I shall now go home to my kitchen and my kids and make a mean mahshy that my detractors would die for!
Photo: Adham Bakry
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