A remarkable feature of the 13 days of protest in Cairo has been the unprecedented participation of women. Tens of thousands of women from all walks of life took to the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities to vent their frustration and call for reform and change.
Women confidently initiated or joined in all kinds of protest activities which included leading slogan chants, singing, reciting poetry, smuggling in food and medicine, and nursing wounded protesters.
This was unusual and involved risks, especially in the overcrowded Tahrir (Liberation) Square sit-in. During the last few years, Cairo has developed a notorious reputation as a city where women in any big crowd are often sexually harassed.
The situation in Tahrir Square has been totally different, according to Abir Suliman, a well-known young blogger and women’s activist who has campaigned for years against sexual harassment on Facebook and elsewhere. “Not a single case of sexual harassment was reported in almost two weeks of demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square”, says Abir, whom I met at the protest.
“I am not surprised that women were treated respectfully and as equals here. Young people have been inspired by the hope and optimism of the uprising; and that gets the best out of them, while repression, neglect and corruption turn people almost into wild beasts.”
A protester, who’s passing by, overhears our conversation and adds, “… and not even a single case of pickpocketing, that’s a miracle.” He then bursts out laughing.
A few hundred women went as far as spending the night with the protesters in the square - despite the fact that Egyptian society rarely tolerates women spending the night out.
Suad Abdulla, a 26-year-old single woman, was one of the women who spent the night in Tahrir Square last Wednesday. Pro-Mubarak demonstrators supported by thugs attacked the square throughout Wednesday night, killing four and injuring at least 500 people. She is proud of having stayed there: “My elder brother was also there. He was not happy with my decision, but left it up to me.”
Looking back at what happened that night, Suad slightly regrets the fact that there were all those women present when the attacks took place. “Some of the men could not join in fending off the attackers because they had to protect the women,” she explains.
A moment of triumph
All in all, Abir remains realistic. “I do not mean that sexual harassment and nasty behaviour against women are buried and belong to the past. But in a moment of triumph, we all experienced and learned how to treat each other with dignity and respect. That will not vanish all at once. We are all at least a bit better than we were three weeks ago. I’m proud of that.”