by Samah Selim
The huge December 20 women’s demonstration against Egypt’s military rulers and the brutalization of women protesters seemed to come out of the blue. I saw a notice on Facebook less than 24-hours beforehand. It wasn’t really organized, but arose spontaneously in the context of street battles that began December 16 between protesters on one side, and the military and Interior Ministry on the other. Only one of those sides was armed. Many women were brutalized in the next few days; women and men were attacked, shot, detained, and tortured.
What happened December 20 surprised everyone. It began small, with about 500 women and men gathering at one end of Tahrir Square. They somehow decided on the spot that the women would march, as women, through the city, and the men would form a human shield around them to prevent violence or harassment against them.
Three or four hours later, as we passed through downtown Cairo, we had grown to 10,000 strong. The marchers made so much noise that everyone around looked out their windows; it drew women and men down to the street from their apartments and work places. The women who came down didn’t just stay on the periphery, but instead joined the march–and they had to join intentionally, choosing to enter the space through the cordon of men.
March Grew Like a Hurricane
The march grew like a hurricane that draws strength and energy into itself from its surroundings. It was an extremely empowering day. So many women, all different ages and classes, all different cultural orientations, covered and uncovered, all of them demanding the same thing: an end to the military government (SCAF) that has been in force for a whole year now since our revolution ended Mubarak’s dictatorship. It was important for the men who joined or saw it too, because they got to see how beautiful women’s empowerment was, and what it means for men to exercise solidarity without dominating an event.
The level of violence in the preceding days was a new escalation of repression, and it included stripping and beating women. The infamous “woman in the blue bra,” whose picture, lying prone on the ground with her abaya stripped off, went around the world, as did video of her being stomped on and dragged off by the police. She became a symbol not only of women, but of the whole revolution as it existed under military rule. The central idea at the march was inspired by “the woman in the blue bra.” The chants revolved around uncovering, stripping, and profoundly humiliating women. The SCAF was dishonoring Egypt’s women!
Almost magically, on the night of the women’s demonstration, the fighting of the prior few nights did not recur. The women’s march seemed to have imposed a truce on the security forces, forcing them to retreat, at least for a while. They had been using live ammunition against us; they had been hunting down and shooting young people in the streets. But after seeing the fury of the women, out for blood, the police had to retreat, and they didn’t have the guts to start shooting people again for some weeks. I believe that the fighting stopped only because it was women who came out.
Language of Gender Turned on its Head
December 20 was the most significant women’s demonstration since the Revolution of 1919 (against British occupation), both in size and symbolically. Women once again occupied the public space en masse. The march was both about women and about the revolution as a whole. Our chants condemned military rule and the attacks on women, employing the “woman in the blue bra” incident to say that SCAF was literally stripping women, dishonoring “the daughters of Egypt.” This kind of feminism turns the language of gender on its head and deploys it against the forces of oppression. It is a different, powerful form of feminism.
Similarly, some of our chants aimed to shame men who didn’t join the protests (they are known as members of the “Couch Party”). The women called to those watching from windows to come out of their houses because SCAF “has stripped your daughters.” Chants condemned the masculinity of those not protesting, implying that real men would not permit such treatment of women to occur. The women were shaming the men into action.
Much chanting was also aimed at shaming the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (which is the major party in the newly-elected parliament) for their not objecting to the mistreatment of women and the violence against the protests. The party had said gross things about “the woman in the blue bra,” such as, “what was she doing out at a protest?” and “why was she wearing fancy underwear?” The marchers condemned them loudly, chanting, “They said freedom, they said justice, come on girls, put on black mourning clothes for the men” (implying that all the “real” men were dead and gone).
The Men on the March
The men who marched with us on December 20 were terrific. It was important for them to experience a women’s demonstration, and most of them figured out to step back from trying to lead it. When some men started their own chants, other men stopped them saying, “No, this is the women’s demonstration.” It was also important for people who weren’t there but saw it on TV or the internet.
The men surrounding the marchers protected us from attack. At the first post-revolution women’s march last March 8, International Women’s Day, a small demonstration was attacked. We still don’t know if those were government “thugs” (agents) or just sexist men, maybe even men who participated in the revolution, but women were verbally and physically harassed. It was traumatic for the young women there. But what shocked me most at the time was that the event was not covered by most of the Arabic press, and that many of my left friends were not horrified by it, as I was. I tried to think about why this would be the case, when our revolution had been led by women, literally—so many leaders and organizers were women, very brave young women. How could women be treated like that so soon after the overthrow of the dictator, just because they came together over women’s issues?
The Egyptian left is a little wary of feminism; the issue for them is the revolution, and they don’t see the need for a feminist element in it from the beginning. Their idea of revolution includes the possibility of forging a real feminist movement, but not of having the feminist movement first. For intellectuals, it’s not so much “wait until after the revolution,” but the idea that an Egyptian women’s movement will be worked out through revolution—within the same process and not as a separate movement, which they call “sectarian.” At meetings of the many new political parties, there is much discussion about whether to have women’s committees in addition to other issue-oriented committees. They debate whether women’s committees have the effect of ghettoizing women, setting them apart from what everyone else is doing, and whether a radical feminist movement is possible within or in tandem with revolutionary nationalism.