Women’s empowerment in the Egyptian revolution
Hania Sholkamy, Sunday 13 Feb 2011
Among its major achievements, Egypt’s historic popular revolution boosted gender equality

Women and men planned and sustained the ongoing peoples’ movement of protest for democracy in Egypt. The movement is gender neutral! There are equal numbers of young women as men credited with sparking this movement through their online activism. There are whole families including small children sleeping in Tahrir Square. There are hundreds if not thousands of women involved in organizing supplies, medications, banners, marches, international contacts and general mobilization for this movement. There are veiled, face veiled, non veiled, women alone, with children, very young and elderly all standing in solidarity together and with their friends and families. Different groups harbor different politics but they stand in a coalition for freedom and for a better future. Women in the thick of the struggle or those who are in the margins may not consciously hold a political agenda but the demands of this movement have become our new common sense!

Publicly and privately women young and old give different reasons for their commitment to this struggle. “ I am here to support these youth”, “I want to help because of the brutality of the regime's attack on the protesters", “my friend died and I will not let his/her death go in vain", "I hate this regime because it is corrupt”, "I want a dignified future for my kids”, “I am here because this is the best place to be”, “I have never before been in a crowd and not been harassed,” are some of the responses that women give when asked why they continue to stand in Tahrir. These responses and the common sense politics to which millions now hold dear are not the domain of women alone. Men are equally involved and equally incensed. The revolution is not gendered! People participate as citizens not as sex roles.

These protests have discredited formal politics and bear implications for women’s political empowerment. There are no avenues to women’s political empowerment that do not traverse the landscape of politics as a whole. Quotas in a rigged election, accesses to high office in the absence of transparency and accountability, local council representation without good governance or voice without freedom do not deliver gender justice. A set program does not circumscribe the demands for freedom and change that we hear now in Egypt. The recommended recipe that are the agendas of development fade when faced with genuine will and human and quests for dignity and choice.

We should note the advances that Egypt’s women’s machineries and formal activists had achieved. The rights to mobility, political representation as a fixed quota, unilateral divorce, and the criminalization of female genital mutilations were all ‘wins’ made under authoritarianism. Women who effected, celebrated, or benefitted from these gains should not be stigmatized nor should their hard work be denigrated or ignored. The gains listed were perhaps the most that could be accomplished within the strictures of a restrictive and elitist system. The genuine equality and solidarity of men and women now could only exist when the system of the past was being challenged as a whole!

What are the lessons of these protests for the study of women’s empowerment?

We learn that women’s empowerment when isolated from political contexts can only be reformist and limited. We see that transformation is not the domain of development but is the will of people. Most importantly, we realize the fabled ‘cultural’ resistance to equality that observers of women in the Middle East have often written about is a political invention not a social one. Patriarchy is a political system not a social or cultural one. When politics change then patriarchy is automatically challenged. True there is a pervasive masculinity to the ongoing attempts to find a resolution to the protests. There may or may not be a symbolic female in each so-called and self-designated committee of "wise men" that are engaged in dialogue with the vice-president. But that is not really an important observation. If women are not at the table, they are certainly on the street. That may be food for gender thought!