In celebration of International (Working) Women’s Day, Marxist Student interviewed two women who were among the millions involved in the Egyptian Revolution of the last four years. Sarah Nagaty is an Egyptian post-graduate student studying in Portugal, as well as a member of the Sheffield Marxist Society and the Marxist Student Federation. Asmaa Bashir is a civil society worker living and working in Cairo. Here’s what they had to say.
What are your experiences as women living in Egypt?
Sarah: A woman living in Egypt (and the same goes for other Middle Eastern countries) is a woman who is always in contact with the question of survival. I am studying now in Europe and I feel that we do share many concerns with women all over the world but I guess what makes our experience quite different is the fact that we meet the survival junctions in life more often than any other women.
Asmaa: I could write a book about that. As a girl who did not really conform to all the conventions I was expected to conform to, I get many questions about why I am doing what I am doing, getting a flat on my own and trying to work in civil society organisations.
There are so many challenges. I always feel challenged, in a place to prove that I am a superhero to overcome for the fact that I do not have a man in my life. It is really challenging to be a woman in Egypt, but once you manage to dig a new path for yourself, the moral independence that comes with this, is very rewarding.
Four years ago this spring, a wave of revolutions swept the Middle East, deposing the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and demonstrating the power that lies in the hands of ordinary people. What role did women play in the revolution? How has it changed things for them?
Sarah: Women played a dual role. Firstly, they had a great presence all over the streets of Egypt. I don’t think that Egypt has seen that many women protesters in its history. For quite a conservative society, the numbers of female protesters was incredible. Secondly, those for whom it was not easy to go out and protest as often as men played an essential role from home. When various means of communication were cut off during the very first days of the revolution, women who stayed at home played a role in the organisational aspect of these protests. We only had landlines to use and many women who stayed at home next to the landlines while there men were in the streets protesting were the only means through which communication between protesters took place. Those women who were out in the field provided medical care to people shot or injured during the protests, in fact this work was mainly dominated by women who also, being doctors and nurses on the ground, managed to document, in lists that were published afterwards, the names of all those who were injured or killed during the protests. Right now, we are still going through the experience and are very much a part of the action, not mere spectators, so we can not totally say now if that has changed anything for women. However, it is now more accepted, relatively speaking, by society that there are female activists who are as involved in fighting for the cause as there are men. Before the revolution, women who used to join protests were seen by the majority as dangerous anomalies or women whose modesty should be questioned.
To a great extent there has been a change in how different civil society organisations and political groups started to deal with women’s issues. For example, now, there are more campaigns working on violence against women and the media has also started paying more attention to cases of violence against women or sexual harassment, especially those incidents that accompanied the days of the revolutions. We tend to think that this attention paid to women issues is not now as prominent as it was when the revolutionary fervour was at its peak. However, if we compare nowadays to the days before the revolution, we can easily see that there has been a stone cast into the still water of women’s suffering.
How can genuine freedom for women in Arab countries be achieved?
Sarah: The apparent freedom that the revolutions of the Arab spring brought about has, unfortunately, also come with a package of new means of oppressing this potential freedom. This is one of the reasons why women have not achieved much progress so far. Oppression of women is not divorced from the overarching oligarchies that govern society. Female activists are accused of moral corruption or get their personal or sexual life questioned and tarnished in order to de-politicise their cause and hence their unfair trials. The genuine freedom of women will come with the genuine freedom of the whole nation, and ultimately the whole world.