Women Make a Huge Impact on Protests in Egypt

A demonstrator kisses a soldier in Cairo. Image courtesy of Lefteris Pitarakis, AP.

"Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on January 25th...If you have honor and dignity as a man, come. Come and protect me and other girls in the protest. If you stay at home, then you deserve all that is being done, and you will be guilty before your nation and your people. And you’ll be responsible for what happens to us on the streets while you sit at home."

Twenty-six year-old Asmaa Mahfouz said these words just one week prior to "The Day of Anger" protests against the Mubarak regime, in an online video, her face shown plainly to the world.

Her video was said to spark a large segment of the demonstrators; and, according to the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, 20 percent of those demonstrators were women. Some estimates put that number at around 50 percent. But even if those figures were lower, the presence of women activists in the Egyptian public sphere -- whether virtual or seen in Tahrir Square -- is unprecedented.

“Female participation is at an equal standing -- just like male participation -- and female demonstrators are not shying away from marching despite the tear gas,” said Amr Hamzawy, a research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center, to the New York Times. “It’s very impressive,” he said. “It’s not about male and female, it’s about everyone.”

A large female presence in the streets of Cairo--with little to zero sexual harassment reported--should not be seen as insignificant. Though women have protested alongside men in the past, reports of government confrontation targeting women are common. While covering a trial in 2005, journalist Mona Eltahawy noted that she was inappropriately touched by a police officer.

“Many women have experienced much more horrendous attacks,” she said. “It was very saddening, but also gratifying that these young women were prepared. They would say things like wear two layers of clothes so that if they rip off the first, you’re still dressed. No zippers. Carry a can of mace. If you wear a headscarf, make sure you tie it this way and not that way and wear two. … They [women] were determined because the purpose of these assaults and targeting women, obviously, is to shame these women and to terrorize them…These young women will not be scared away. We are standing up for our rights to be active and equal members of Egyptian society, which, again, gives me hope looking forward.”

The gains made for women's rights have yet to materialize in the world of politics, but the outlook is certainly optimistic. While Mubarak was in office this past November, Al Jazeera reported that a new law had been passed by the People's Assembly to allow 64 more seats in the house for women. If changed from its current status of only four seats, the law could mean an increase of 1,500% more women making decisions affecting the lives of all Egyptians. In the 1970s, a quota had been established to create more seats for female legislators, but it was repealed in 1986.

With enough momentum, the presence of women demonstrators in Cairo may be seen as a major turning point for gender equality in Egypt. A time when Egyptians chose a higher standard of living for themselves, with women leading the way.