Women have a long history of activism in Egypt



“We’re all sacrificing for our country.”


Egyptian women celebrate outside Egypt’s presidential palace after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down a few hours ago.

The streets of Cairo exploded in joy when Mubarak finally resigned after 30 years of autocratic rule.


Women have a long history of activism in Egypt,

and the protests against Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir Square were no different.


 ‘Ruheya is a 21-year-old university student. She’s come to Tahrir Square from the northern town of Sharqeya — a hundred miles away. Thursday she’s one of the volunteers monitoring the entrance to the Square, checking identification and searching bags to make sure no one brings in weapons.

She steps forward eagerly to speak with me, and launches into an attack on President Hosni Mubarak.

“How many billions does he have, and we the people live in huts and don’t know how to feed ourselves?” Ruheya said. “There needs to be some balance. Not people at the very top and at the very bottom. I want to see democracy in my country, and I have to sacrifice for it. I have to be ready to die, to be arrested. I can’t sit at home and say: I want freedom.”

“There are Christian girls here, there are girls with their hair uncovered,” Ruheya said.

“We’re all volunteers. We’re all Egyptians, whether we’re Christians or Muslims, whether we’re religious or not, we’re all good people.

We’re all sacrificing for our country.”

Ruheya wears a long, conservative veil. She’s been involved in protests on her university campus led by Islamist groups. But she’s never participated in something like this. And, she said, it’s bigger than any religious or political affiliation.


The sacrifices of women

Many of those “sacrificing” are women, which may come as a surprise to many but really shouldn’t, said history professor Mona Russel.

“Women were at the forefront of the 1919 revolution in Egypt right before Egypt got its independence, in the struggle against the British; women were prominent at the time of the French occupation as well,” Ruheya said.

“So Egyptian women have been involved in protests for many, many years this isn’t something new.”

But the authoritarian governments that have governed Egypt for the last 60 years have curtailed the autonomy of women’s organizations. Just as they have tightly controlled all freedoms of assembly and expression.

Women, like most Egyptians, have been frightened away from politics. Activists here say the government-backed thugs who attack protesters have singled out women, tearing their clothes and sexually molesting them.

But because of the scope and significance of the last few weeks, women felt they could get involved. Asmaa’ Mahfouz is a young activist who posted YouTube videos of herself calling on Egyptians to participate.

“Every one in the country who considers himself a man, should go out,” Mahfouz said. “Everyone who says ‘girls shouldn’t go to demonstrations because they’ll be abused,’ should act like a man and go out himself. To everyone who says, ‘not enough people will protest, nothing will come of it,’ I say ‘it’s your fault.'”


Conservative pressures

Women make up more than half of Egypt’s university students. They are visible in the media and on the street; many work. But women rarely get the top posts in government or business. A woman’s highest ambition is still expected to be to establish a family.

And as conservative, religious movements have gained popularity, women have been pressured to stay at home and to act “modestly.” Many Egyptian women complain of constant harassment on the street.

Khuloud Saber is a human rights activist. She’s been going to the protests every day since they started. I met her in the busy offices of the non-governmental organization where she works.

She said the protests have re-affirmed a spirit of freedom and solidarity that has given women new breathing room.

“I found a lot of teenage girls and even old women who are veiled and from the middle class who clearly were never involved before in such things,” Saber said. “But the thing that really surprised me is how I can behave as a woman in the demonstration. I smoke freely in Tahrir and I kiss my friends in the street.”

This is behavior that in normal times might have attracted unwanted attention or criticism. Nowadays, Saber said, nobody even notices.

“During the demonstrations, I didn’t face any kind of harassment or even someone looking at me in a strange way. I stayed till very late in the street, till 3 a.m., 4 a.m., and it was totally relaxing — not only safe,” Saber said. “And the interesting thing is that all people are focusing on just one goal and all things like religion and gender and ethnicity just disappeared.”

Women have long been told, by the government and even by opposition groups here, that their rights are a priority — but that economic reforms, or security concerns, or cultural considerations must come first.

But as they’ve so fully participated in the first mass protest movement in Egypt in a generation — women here have found that they don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission to be full citizens.’


This story was originally covered by PRI’s The World.

By Ursula Lindsey




PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.


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