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On Egyptian women after the Arab Spring

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Nesreen Salem’s speech for the Swedish Parliament on the state of Egyptian women

Nesreen Salem

Nesreen Salem

By Nesreen Salem

When history books reflect on modern Egypt, we will read the “official” version of the story but we will never read the stories that matter: her stories. We will not hear the voices of millions of women who stood shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, on 25 January, 2011. Yet the revolution diary is filled with pages upon pages of the tribulations of Egyptian women.

On 25 January, a sea of Egyptians stood their ground demanding bread, freedom and social justice. They arrived at Tahrir Square from every corner: Copts, Muslims, Nubians, Bedouins, and for once we saw how diverse and beautiful we were. Our calls rang and circled the globe in what was a truly historical moment. We wanted down with the regime, so what was the regime to do? Target the women.

What a rifle could not do, a woman certainly could. If death would not dissuade people then surely targeting their women would. Suddenly, Tahrir Square became an amphitheatre of horror. It was clear those carrying out gang rapes were organised, well-paid and well-protected. They were in the hundreds. Did it stop the women? The next days boldly displayed the answer: the insurgence of women protesters multiplied and spilled over, loud, proud and fearless.

However, a new Shahrayar was in town collectively punishing us: first came the army’s virginity tests, then came the gang rapes in Tahrir.

Under these conditions, women’s fight became infinitely basic: survival, which seemed to be increasingly linked to abandoning what they stood up for during the revolutions.

From day one and everyday, a girl in Egypt is reminded that she is only a girl. She knows it because her parents tell her that one day she will get married and be a housewife and education will not change that. She is reminded when her brother is supported and encouraged to learn and succeed and work because he will be the heir to his father’s throne. She’s reminded she’s only a girl when she walks down the street and she is told to cover up or face harassment. She’s reminded she’s only a girl because even when her skin and head are invisible, she’s still not safe from sexual predators. She’s reminded she’s a girl when her parents decide to mutilate her genitalia, otherwise no man would want to marry her. She’s reminded she’s a girl when, if her father is too poor to look after her, she’s sold to the highest bidder as a bride. She’s reminded she’s a girl when her quest for independence is met with a barrage of accusations and slurs. She’s reminded she’s nothing but a girl when men on the street use the word “girl” and “woman” to insult other men. She’s reminded she’s a girl when all that matters to society is what she does with her body; reducing her virtue and reputation to a thin layer of hymen. When a boy of five years of age is told to stop crying like a girl, do they know that the tears of a suffering female should not be taken so lightly? Those tears can water the seeds of a revolution.

What do Egyptian women want? Rebeca Grynspan, the UN undersecretary general and associate administer of the UN Development Program (UNDP) stated: “The character of this century will be determined by our ability to walk towards gender equality. All studies not only suggest that if you tackle gender equality, you empower women, but also you will be much more effective in fighting poverty and hunger.”

And this is exactly what Egyptian women seek first and foremost: gender equality. We seek an end to gender-based discrimination.

Many women in rural areas take chronic poverty and gender-related disadvantages for a fate. Women grow up to marry and have children. That is their role in life. Sadly, the common belief is: “Reading doesn’t make a woman socially acceptable or useful.” The general neglect of rural areas, where even the most basic of services and needs are problematic, has led to significant discrepancies in the demographics of Egypt that were largely exploited during elections, as the Muslim Brotherhood has strong grassroots in rural areas and upper Egypt, where for years they have provided help to those who needed it. In turn, when it was time to vote, it was decided for them who to give their voices to.

Today, Egypt is largely considered a conservative society, although historically it was not always regarded as such. Women from neighbouring Arab countries looked upon us as an example of how women should be treated though we were far from it. Thanks to years of state neglect and corruption, and an increasing role of underground Islamist groups masquerading as charity, the poor and needy had nowhere else to turn. Conservatism became the rule of law with patriarchy being the natural order. So when a woman dares to defy the system, she is met with violence of various forms.

Domestic violence is rampant in our society. I don’t need a survey to tell me; I can see how normalised it has become in our movies and on our TV screens. Physical and verbal abuse alike do not shock people. We have seen violence used as a method both endorsed and practised by the state in Tahrir Square during various protests. Hence the government would be quite reluctant to criminalise violence against women. It remains our biggest and toughest battle in our fight to amend the new constitution.

What makes our battles particularly arduous is how these crimes against women are somehow justifiable in religious contexts. Women who are trapped in violent relationships often stay because, if they were to leave, they’d have no where to go and no means to survive independently. It is a sad state of affairs when a significant percentage of women are systematically ostracised. Had these women received a compulsory education, training, apprenticeships and monetary aid, perhaps they would at least be able to contemplate leaving their abusers, and rescuing their children whom no doubt would also be on the receiving end of violence in the home.

It is certainly not easy being a woman in Egypt, but a woman’s strife is doubled when she belongs to a minority group within her society. Copts, Nubians and Bedouins are among those who fall victim to acts of targeted aggression and discrimination from both state and society. For decades, the government had provocatively fired up animosities among minorities in Egypt, dividing to conquer. The revolution has given rise to their voices, but the government still attempts to silence them. In the previous Constituent Assembly, there were no Nubian representatives. With the rise of neo-nationalism and amidst very little awareness, Nubian heritage and language as well as Coptic language, are being slowly yet surely eradicated, in addition, the state does not recognise them socially, culturally and legally as full Egyptian citizens.

Mario Vargas Llosa famously said in his Nobel prize acceptance speech here in Stockholm in 2010: “I despise every form of nationalism – or rather, religion – that is short-sighted, exclusive, that cuts off the intellectual horizon and hides in its bosom ethnic and racist prejudices, for it transforms into a supreme value, moral and ontological privilege, of fortuitous circumstances of one’s birth place.”

As such, we Egyptians must insist on protecting our plurality, our diversity, our unique multi-ethnic heritage, history and languages. We must insist on a civil, secular Egypt, freed from autocratic military rule and freed from theocracy. We no longer want an extension to the confusion created by blinkered nationalism and its violent rejection of the ‘other’ with patriotism.

We cannot postpone our fight for women’s liberation to an undefined “better” future. We need to make it the central pillar of the collective struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice”.

As to the question: What can Sweden and other countries do to support us women in Egypt, the answer is: how far we have come and how hard we have fought is a testament to the fact that we do not need to be rescued. We will gain our emancipation with our very own hands. We are no longer waiting to be given our rights; we are snatching them from those who claim to be our protectors. What we need is an ally; a supportive friend, who stands with us in solidarity and who will not try to fight our battles for us, who will keep our government in check. We are aware of how much money our friends give our state; and towards this money, we need you to demand real results on the ground and to seek empirical evidence that is replicated across the whole of Egypt. Amidst the current uncertainties, Sweden and other friends must stick to their principles and values in dealing with the Middle-East and North-Africa.

I may have painted a grim scene for you, but the truth is, it is not. And the biggest proof are the hundreds and thousands of other women just like me and better, standing where they are and promising to continue their fight for bread, freedom and social justice. We are breaking boundaries, taboos, stigmas and reaching for horizons we were only allowed to read about in books. We have given up on everything but this revolution, which we will fight for with infinite passion till our last breath. Egypt is a country of so much more than revolutions, coups and history made and in the making; it is a country of ideas, art, comedy, music, literature and literary fantasies that no tyrant can steal from us. Egypt is Pharaonic, Arabian, Islamic, Coptic, Mediterranean, Nubian, Bedouin, Middle Eastern, African… What an extraordinary privilege for a country not to have an identity because it has all of them. And what a struggle it is to make its people aware of that privilege. When our sense of a shared humanity prevails, and political leaders set aside sectarianism for the common good, events can occur as marvelous as the ones in one’s imagination. Our dream of gender equality, human dignity, bread, freedom and social justice may feel distant sometimes, and perhaps we will not see them in our lifetimes, but we are determined that our children and their children and their children’s children will live that dream. And we will make it happen.

Nesreen Salem is a doctoral student at university of Essex and an Education & Creative Writing Specialist.


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