Egypt’s Uprising: Don’t Drown Out Women’s Voices

As Egypt enters the second week of protests against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, women are speaking out about what the uprising means to them, and to neighboring Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan where change is also on the horizon. Whatever transpires in the weeks ahead, we hope that these nations and their people will foster a peaceful transition -- and that women leaders and NGOs will be part of the political solution and new governments. We’re posting here some of the women’s voices that we’ve heard in the past few days.

Of the vigorous protests in Cairo, leading Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi wants to ensure that the world knows the central role women are playing alongside men. As she told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, “Women and girls are beside boys in the streets,” she said. “We are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy and a new constitution, no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians.”

The New York Times reported that Mariam Soliman, a 28-year-old Egyptian school counselor, led a group down a street and became surrounded by truckloads of riot police officers. “Women have to go down and participate and demand their rights, or is it going to be the men who fight for our rights?” she said.

Nancy Yousef, who was born in Egypt and now teaches English literature at CUNY Baruch in New York, expressed concern over potential chaos in her home country: “People are concerned for their own families and for the survival of their own families. Tensions between the very wealthy and the very poor are nothing new in Egypt.”

Egyptian-born columnist and speaker Mona Eltahawy spoke on MSNBC about the international response: “Some wonder who should take over. Egypt is a country of 80 million people. We can come up with alternatives. We don’t ask for anyone to rescue Egypt...All we ask for is moral support. We want the world to be on the side of the future, and that future is on the streets of Egypt. Long live the revolution!”

**The Global Fund for Women, released a strong and comprehensive statement on the protests: “The Global Fund for Women stands in solidarity with the brave women and men who are risking their lives to create a new country, one that respects human rights, justice and equality for all...We call upon the US government to stand on the right side of history and support the Egyptian people's right to true democracy and freedom.”

**The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights released a statement last week condemning some security forces’ “use of excessive force against demonstrators in Egypt” on January 25th and 26th. The Center stated that they will “continue to receive reports and complaints and provide legal support for demonstrators, especially women.”

Protesters in Tunisia, who have been credited with sparking reform in the region, include Asma Belkassem, a 31-year-old lawyer, who shared aspirations for a new era for Tunisian women. "What is sure is that we women have rights in Tunisia," she says. "And no one can take them away now. Not the Islamists or anybody else."

A Roundup of Women’s Voices from Around the Region

Democracy Now: Leading Egyptian Feminist, Nawal El Saadawi: "Women and Girls are Beside Boys in the Streets"
Nawal El Saadawi: “Women and girls are beside boys in the streets. They are—and we are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy and a new constitution, no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslims and Christians.”

NPR: Deadly Political Unrest Continues in Egypt
Tunisian activist Khadija Sharife: “The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we've never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society. We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.”

New York Times: Equal Rights Takes to the Barricades
Mariam Soliman, a 28-year-old school counselor, led a group of men and women down a street as they gradually became surrounded by truckloads of riot police officers...It was a charged picture, with Ms. Soliman playing a role that many women in Egypt would avoid — or delegate to a man. Not this woman...“Women have to go down and participate and demand their rights, or is it going to be the men who fight for our rights?” Ms. Soliman explained.

ABC: Egypt Protests: Sexual Harassment of Women Drops, Witnesses Say
Heba Lashin, 25, told ABC News that in the past she has stayed home during protests. "The risk is too high and the returns are too low," said Lashin. "I could get groped, and no one is listening to them anyway. But now, we aren't even thinking about this. We are all only thinking about one thing. This has become our focus."

The Takeaway: Washington Responds to Events in Egypt
Nancy Yousef, Egyptian-American, Professor of English Lit at CUNY Baruch in New York: “I myself think that the Obama administration has done a somewhat admirable job of walking a tight rope here and responding judiciously to the changing situation on the ground. I think it’s important that America not to be perceived as interfering in the events over there.”

The Takeaway: Arab-Americans Reflect on Uprisings Back Home
Raja Althaibani, from Yemen, is currently working on her BA in Human Rights and International Development: “You don’t really have a middle class. You have the very, very rich and the very, very poor. The majority of the country obviously is very very poor...Yemen is already becoming very very unstable, and the government really isn’t doing much about it.”

NPR: In Tunisia, Women Play Equal Role in Revolution
Asma Belkassem, a 31-year-old lawyer, says she's not scared. "What is sure is that we women have rights in Tunisia," she says. "And no one can take them away now. Not the Islamists or anybody else."

The Guardian: We’ve Waited for This Revolution for Years
Egyptian-born columnist and speaker Mona Eltahawy: To understand the importance of what's going in Egypt, take the barricades of 1968 (for a good youthful zing), throw them into a mixer with 1989 and blend to produce the potent brew that the popular uprising in Egypt is preparing to offer the entire region. It's the most exciting time of my life.

The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights: ECWR condemns the excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators
The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) condemns the security forces’ use of excessive force against demonstrators in all of the governorates in Egypt yesterday evening, January 25th, and early this morning, January 26th. These demonstrators included wide sectors of Egyptian society: youth, children, men and women, Muslims and Copts. They all joined together to demand their economic and civil rights in a non-violent way.

The National: With Ben Ali gone, repairs begin at Tunisia's closed mosques
Khadija Cherif, a former president of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats and a sociologist at the University of Tunis, said: "The rejection of the West is the rejection of modernity. But democracy will allow us to explain that religious faith doesn't mean you can't be modern."

MSNBC, the Dylan Ratigan Show: Why the U.S. Should Support Egypt’s Uprising
Egyptian-born columnist and speaker Mona Eltahawy: “The uprising in my country is the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life...Watching the uprising from New York City exhilarates me and makes me so proud to be an Egyptian. I cry when I see video footage of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, filled with thousands upon thousands chanting: ‘The people want to topple the president.’ Tahrir means liberation in Arabic, and it gives me goosebumps as I watch my country people demand liberty.”


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Iman Bibars, Director, Ashoka Arab world with intro by Ashoka Fellow, Al Etmanski:

The "clean souls" of Egypt - A Letter from an Ashoka and Egyptian Leader
The following letter is written by Dr. Iman Bibars, who is an Ashoka Vice President and the Egypt based, Regional Director of Ashoka Arab World.
Ashoka is a global fellowship of over 2600 of the world's leading social entrepreneurs, many of whom are working in Arab Nations. These men and women are addressing some of the world's toughest problems often in extraordinary situations, including Egypt. They are chosen by Ashoka because of their ingenuity and their desire for system wide change. I received this note because I am part of this Ashoka fellowship.
Dr. Bibars has committed her life to work with marginalized and voiceless groups, such as female heads of households in the poorest slums of Egypt, street children, street vendors and garbage collectors. Her letter speaks to the irrepressible nature of good even when confronted by overwhelming repression. It is a emotional first person account from inside the cauldron that is now Egypt. Feel free to send her a message of support.
Dear Friends of Ashoka,

This is a letter to all of my friends and colleagues who sent warm and kind words of encouragement to me, my family and all of the Egyptians at these very tough times.

What has happened in Egypt the last week or more is unprecedented and is a wonderful and revitalizing experience for all Egyptians who love this country. This is our first real people revolution and it is fueled by wonderful and great young men and women from all walks of Egypt. The liberation square has become a symbol for all our sufferings and also our victories. I cannot claim that I have suffered as many Egyptians did and many of the young revolutionaries asked me why am I supporting them although I have been benefiting (their words) or have not been harmed by the old regime. My only answer was that I loved Egypt and that to be loyal and patriotic to this country means that you want the best for her and you want her to be free and her people to be liberated and treated as humans.
For me Egypt is a she, a her and the mother of all Egyptians and the matriarch that has kept us all in her bosom and nurtured us whether we were grateful or not. And what the regime of husni Mubarak and the security apparatus headed by the war criminal habib al adly have done to us and to the people of Egypt for 30 years is unparalleled in any other country. The humiliation and destruction of the Egyptian character and the spirit of the people in a calculated and organized way took place for 30 years in a relentless and very evil way. Egyptians stopped laughing or smiling from their hearts, you could see and touch helplessness and hopelessness among the old and the young.
Phenomena such as sexual harassment, looting and predominance of thugs spread because they were encouraged by the security that wanted to break the pride and self respect of all Egyptians. The murdering and killing was not only of peoples bodies and lives but of their souls and spirits. Corruption and lack of ethical fiber and self respect became the norm, became the traits most respected.

I am as you all know quite mature (i.e. old) and have been here since the 60s and I have worked with the people and in the streets and was naïve enough to try to enter politics believing that this country needed those who loved her and who would give more then they would take. I was burnt and burnt hard and not only from the government but from the pretenders or those who played the roles of defenders of human rights or of the people but who in many cases found it lucrative to play that role. My mistake was that I always followed my conscience and what I thought was right and was neither extreme left nor extreme right. What happened in Egypt during the last 5 years at least what I found out broke my heart and I started thinking and acting seriously to leave the country to go and live somewhere else. I did not feel there was any hope left.

But then on the 25th, I rediscovered Egypt, the Egypt I have read about and dreamed about. The brave and noble youth of Egypt have resurrected our pride and soul. They have revived the real spirit and soul of Egypt. They have taken away our shame of being so spineless and useless for decades. They have and for the first time in our history carried a real people's revolution at least during my life time.

They managed to reveal the true face of our security and police forces, those traitors who abandoned their posts and allowed our children and families to die, be attacked and vandalized. Many of the looters and thugs were reported were associated one way or the other with the police. They did not mind that mothers, elders and children be terrorized in a an effort to abort the revolution and scare all of the liberation square heroes away from their main battle. They did not care and frankly this is what the last regime had shown over and over again, that they do not care for us, for the Egyptians or for Egypt. That is why they should not stay, they should go , they should not be allowed to rule or govern as they are in reality traitors who hate us. No one who loves his country and its people would have allowed the scandal and shameful behavior of the security forces not only in murdering and torturing the protesters but more so in terrorizing the kind people of Egypt by opening the prisons, and sending their own thugs to steal, loot and vandalize shops, homes and the nice and simple Egyptian families.

Now at this moment and after the maneuvers of the state , a peaceful transition of power is becoming less of a reality and clashes between the youth of Egypt, the real revolutionaries and those pushed and prompted by the state and the NDP is going on now. I just learned that the liberation square is completely blocked and the army tanks are around it and also blocking any means to go in or out.

The state TV is sending wrong images and stories and lying to the people of Egypt, the regime and its NDP are sending thugs and some paid youth to start fights with the heroes of the liberation square and our youth are in deep danger. They are being under siege now and are being attacked by disguised thugs and security forces, the army has blocked all inroads to the liberation square and the mercenaries of the regime are beating and attacking women, girls and young men whose only demand was freedom and liberty.

If we can reach all Egyptians everywhere and tell them that the revolution is not and will not be over, I met several young people and they said that they are willing to die for Egypt in the liberation square but we do not want to sacrifice those clean souls. Please lets all see a way to save them and tell all of Egypt that the mercenaries of the regime are the ones taking to the street now and that no one should give up the demands for a better and more liberated and free Egypt. Please do not believe the state TV for there are no outside forces or traitors among the revolutionaries who wanted our pride and self worth and respect to return to us.

Iman Bibars, PhD
Leadership Team Member
Vice President, Ashoka
Regional Director, Ashoka Arab World
ibibars@ashoka.org