The Erasure of Women from Egypt’s Revolution

by Amy Austin Holmes, The American University in Cairo, Egypt, and visiting scholar at Harvard University, USA

Mesmerized by the spectacle of mass protests on Tahrir Square, the Arab Spring has led to a renewed interest in the study of revolutions. Despite the outpouring of literature, women often appear to be missing in action. H.A. Hellyer’s book A Revolution Undone begins with a glossary of 27 important figures in the Egyptian revolution. Only one woman is mentioned in the glossary, alongside 26 men. Philip Marfleet’s Egypt: Contested Revolution features a woman on the cover, but not many women are included in his analysis. Other scholars include women primarily as victims of harassment or violence, but not as protagonists that mattered in shaping the unfolding events. In order to find women in the sea of literature on the Arab Spring, one must search in subfields dedicated to gender studies, as they are often absent from the books that claim to offer general overviews of the uprisings. As a resident of Cairo who has lived in Egypt since 2008, I saw women at every protest, at every sit-in, at virtually every event I witnessed. But women are being erased from the history of the Egyptian revolution. Future generations may believe that women were unimportant actors in the events known as the Arab Spring. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Women did not just advocate for women’s rights. Women were often at the forefront of Egypt’s revolutionary activism, from the time of the Mubarak dictatorship through the years of upheaval, until the present day when the regime has reconfigured itself under President Sisi. Back in 2005, in an attempt to prevent fraud and introduce an element of accountability in Egypt’s authoritarian system, three women founded a group that monitored the presidential and parliamentary elections. They called themselves Shayfeencom, which translates to “we are watching you.” One of the founders, Bouthaina Kamel, later went on to be the first woman to run for president in the history of modern Egypt. Prior to the revolution, the Nadeem Center was Egypt’s only center dedicated to treating victims of torture, and it was founded by a woman: Dr. Aida Seif El-Dawla. And who made the video that went viral one week before January 25, 2011, which catalyzed millions of people to come to the streets and protest? Also a woman: Asmaa Mahfouz of April 6 Youth Movement.

After Mubarak was ousted, the country was ruled for a year-and-a-half by a military junta known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. As I have argued elsewhere, one of the most radical demands of the revolution was to end military rule. This was not about reform or incremental change or the removal of a mere dictator from office, but a call to fundamentally change the structure of the state: to introduce civilian rule in a country governed by the military since its founding in 1952. The Egyptian military is based on universal male conscription. Women are thereby excluded from the most powerful institution in the country. It may not be a coincidence that many of the leading activists in these anti-military groups were women. The No Military Trials group demanded an end to the practice of subjecting civilians to military tribunals. Some of the leading figures in this group included Shahira Abou Leil and Mona Seif. Another group exposed many of the human rights violations committed by the military through video screenings in public spaces. This group was called Askar Kazeboon, which means Soldiers are Liars, and was co-founded by Sally Toma, a Coptic Christian woman.

It was often women who shattered societal taboos by speaking about the unspeakable violence inflicted on both women and men. It was Samira Ibrahim who broke the silence around the military’s practice of conducting virginity tests on detained women. Heba Morayef, who was the Human Rights Watch country director for Egypt at the time and the only woman to be included in Hellyer’s glossary, led the campaign to end the practice of virginity tests. Women have also played a leading role in advocating for the rights of men. Dalia Abdel Hamid, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), was one of the few people inside Egypt who denounced the crackdown on the LGBTQ community in the fall of 2017, including the forced anal exams on men who were suspected of being homosexual.

Women have been at the forefront of Egypt’s oppositional media landscape. Lina Attallah was the founder and editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, a news website that The Guardian in 2015 described as keeping press freedom alive in Egypt. For their dangerous truth-telling, Mada Masr was one of the first websites to be blocked in 2017 and is still censored more than a year later.

The new generation of Nubian activists features several prominent women. Fatma Emam worked on the constitution-drafting committee and succeeded in having Nubia mentioned for the first time in the Egyptian constitution. As a blogger and researcher, she continues to raise awareness about sensitive issues, including the military’s seizure of traditional Nubian lands along the border with Sudan. In the spring of 2017, Seham Osman, a young woman from Aswan, was the first woman to announce her intention to run for president of the General Nubian Union, before she had to withdraw after coming under severe pressure.

Finally, one of Egypt’s most well-known human rights lawyers is Mahienour El Massry. She is known for defending the rights of all Egyptians, including 21 female supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, although she herself was an outspoken critic of the Brotherhood. She has also defended Syrian refugees, and insisted on sleeping next to them in police stations to ensure that they were not tortured or mistreated. In 2014, she received the Ludovic Trarieux human rights award; Nelson Mandela won the same award in 1985.

A short commentary like this cannot do justice to the topic. There are simply too many women to mention all of them. Nermin Allam’s Women and the Egyptian Revolution is one place to look for a more detailed analysis. But I hope to have shown that women did not just advocate for women’s rights. They were an integral part of the larger struggle. To erase women from the history of the revolution, or to relegate them to the field of gender studies, is to perpetuate the patriarchal structures they rebelled against.

Direct all correspondence to Amy Austin Holmes <holmes@aucegypt.edu>

Egypt, Volume 8, Issue 3

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