An unprecedented number of Egyptian women participated in Tuesday’s anti-government protests. Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, estimated the crowd downtown to be 20 percent female. Other estimates were as high as 50 percent. In past protests, the female presence would rarely rise to 10 percent. Protests have a reputation for being dangerous for Egyptian women, whose common struggle as objects of sexual harassment is exacerbated in the congested, male-dominated crowd. Police hasten to fence in the demonstrators, and fleeing leads to violence. And women, whose needs are not reflected in the policies of official opposition groups who normally organize protests, have little reason to take the risk.
One of the protest organizers is a woman: Political activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, whose 15-day detention in 2008 for her activism made her a symbol of resistance. But Abdel Fattah’s position at the helm of the movement did not previously mean a large female presence. In 2008 Abdel Fattah tried to mobilize all of Egypt around labor conditions in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, north of Cairo. The male workers in the industrial town constituted the majority of the original protesters, and subsequent protests organized by the movement likewise failed to draw as large of a female crowd as seen on Tuesday.
So why are women so much more involved in this protest, called “The Day of Anger,” than in previous demonstrations against the Egyptian government? The Facebook-initiated groups are unaffiliated with a major opposition group. These protests also seemed safer. Organizers urged those attending to make it a peaceful one, and this became a rallying cry in some areas of the city on Tuesday. Moreover, Egypt’s educated youth, men and women, were fed up with a government that had not changed at all in most of their lifetimes, and which cuts even the educated off from any opportunity. And then there was Tunisia. Suddenly, attending the protest seemed not only worth the risk, but capable of inciting real change.
Alia Mustafa El Sadda, a 20-year-old law student at Cairo University, went to protest with her mother, aunt, and two younger sisters, ages 13 and 16. El Sadda told me that the demonstrations were the “only chance” for change. Her aunt is an activist, but for El Sadda and the other women, this was their first protest.
Shahbandar spent Tuesday on Kasr Al Aini Street and Tahrir Square in Cairo’s downtown area, where demonstrators numbered in the thousands and stayed, clashing with the police, until the early morning. She described the protest as being unique both for the high number of women, and for the respectful way the men were treating them.
The protest did not stay safe for long. The police began spraying the crowd with water and tear gas, and beating and arresting protesters. People were kicked to the ground or chased out of the square in a general chaos. Shahbandar packed herself into a building’s foyer with 70 other people; the police plucked them out one by one, arresting the men.
Now organizers urged women to keep their distance. Wednesday’s demonstrations were much smaller, and much more male-dominated. What women did attend risked being arrested along with the men. El Sadda and her sisters want to protest again tomorrow, but their father has forbidden it, fearing for their safety.